Al Jolson

Singin’ in the Rain

27/04/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Of all Hollywood’s great movie musicals, only one has consistently featured in critics ‘best film’ polls down the years and it is, of course, Singin’ in the Rain.

Released in 1952, at a time when the film industry was already starting to look back to its beginnings for inspiration, it had a lot going for it: Gene Kelly at the height of his terpsichorean powers, a nineteen-year-old Debbie Reynolds just beginning her ascent to stardom and the ever-dependable Donald O’ Connor providing inspirational comic relief. (Even now, if I’m down in the dumps, a viewing of his Make ’em Laugh routine is guaranteed to lift my spirits.) Throw in some top flight songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, a sprightly screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and and it’s no wonder that the film is so fondly remembered.

Of course a movie and a play are very different creatures. Suffice to say that any stage adaptation has some very big tap shoes to fill – so I’m delighted to report that this production, directed by Jonathan Church, is one of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Don Lockwood (Sam Lips) and Lina Lamont (Faye Tozer) are the stars of a series of silent movies, swashbuckling romances beloved by the masses. Thanks to the publicity machine, everybody believes they are lovers in real life but, though Lina is under the impression this is actually true, Don is far from keen on the idea. As he tells his best friend, Cosmo Brown (Ross McLaren), he’s still looking for the right woman. He thinks he might have found her when he bumps into Kathy Selden (Charlotte Gooch), but is dismayed to discover that she’s not at all impressed by his movie star status. She tells him she’s a serious actor, who hopes one day to tread the boards of the New York stage. Ooh, hoity-toity!

But the year is 1927 and Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer – the first talking picture – has just been released. Don thinks it’s a fad that will soon be forgotten but, of course, it signals a seismic change in the industry. Within days it is breaking box office records and it quickly becomes clear that the latest Lockwood and Lamont epic, The Duelling Cavalier, is going to need some drastic remodelling before it can be successfully released. The only problem is Lamont, who has a broad Brooklyn accent delivered in a screeching tone.

Actually, this is the one part of the story that could raise hackles. Making fun of a regional accent would be a no-go zone in the contemporary world, but the fact that this is a period piece just about excuses it – and Tozer plays her part with such adept comic timing that I find myself laughing uproariously at her mangled intonation, particularly when she’s working with her ‘dialect coach’ (Sandra Dickinson).

But that’s my only caveat. Both Lips and Gooch have splendid chemistry together and McLaren manages to own the Make ’em Laugh routine, without attempting to deliver a carbon copy of the original. There are some very funny film extracts, the ensemble dance numbers are thrillingly executed and even the film’s extended Broadway Melody sequence is lovingly recreated, right down to the vibrant costumes, with Harriet Samuel-Gray handling the Cyd Charisse role with aplomb.

And to have so many memorable songs in one show seems almost unfair on the competition.

But of course, you might argue, how can this hope to work onstage without any actual rain? Rest assured, rain there is, in abundance. I can only marvel at the ingenuity involved in taking a travelling production around the country and adapting each and every venue so that water can bucket down onto the cast without causing major devastation. It’s no surprise that the orchestra are safely located backstage instead of in their usual pit. Their brief unveiling during the second overture foreshadows Kathy Selden’s famous moment of glory, as well as highlighting the frantic unseen action that underpins any theatrical production.

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. Wandering out of the Festival Theatre, humming that famous signature tune, I’m almost disappointed to discover that it’s a cold, clear evening, with no hint of rain.

Well, I did say ‘almost.’

5 Stars

Philip Caveney