Singin’ in the Rain
The Palace Theatre, London
The Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue is festooned with gaily-coloured giant umbrellas to advertise its current show, Singin’ in the Rain. I got chatting to the elderly couple sitting next to me, whom it transpires come from Maidenhead. They both used to live and work in London and come to shows every week. Now they are retired and ‘only’ make it up once a month. When they heard that I’d never seen the show and didn’t know the story, they were delighted for me and, at the end, expressed joy that I should first have experienced it in ‘such an excellent version’. What lovely people!
The musical itself is joyful and exuberant, with a charming story – yes, it has one! In Hollywood in 1927 a moving picture studio is having a successful string of hits starring Don Lockwood (performed by the understudy Francis Haugen) and Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley). Apart from the fact that Lina is a little confused between fiction and reality, and thinks that Don is really in love with her, all is going well for Don and his best buddy Cosmo Brown (Daniel Crossley) – the best buddy role is actually very intriguing.
And then, on October 6, 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered, and the future of cinema was irrevocably altered. People wanted talking pictures. Unfortunately Lina Lamont has a ‘speaking voice that sounds like a wounded trumpet swan, and her singing voice is even worse’. No one knows what to do, despite Cosmo’s brilliant Make ’Em Laugh (ironically poor advice as the talkies ruined the careers of silent film comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton), while the producer RF Simpson (Michael Brandon) and his assistant Roscoe Dexter (Peter Forbes) have to placate their increasingly irascible star.
Meanwhile, high on his own success, Don bumps into a girl on the street, Kathy Selden (Scarlett Strallen), who tells him that movies aren’t everything and he’s not as great as all that. Naturally he is smitten and sings almost a musical parody; You Stepped Out of a Dream. To celebrate their latest film success, a group of chorus girls leap out of a cake and perform a fabulous number; All I Do. Don recognises Kathy, whom he has been trying to track down since their earlier encounter, and attempts to intercept her during the routine.
Eventually he gets her a job at the studio on the chorus line (after a hilarious turn with the diction coach – David Lucas – and Cosmo; Moses Supposes), but she has to be hidden from Lina on set, due to a slight altercation at the party caused mainly by Kathy’s good looks and natural talent. Problems persist (not least due to Lina’s jealousy), but the couple – as they have become – are happy. With Cosmo ever-present, they form a perfect team (Good Morning is almost impossibly good-hearted) and their happiness is infectious. Not even the rain can dampen Don’s spirits, and you know what comes next...
The eponymous song is a triumph of singing, dancing and staging. One of the lighting rigs is fitted with water jets and the shallow depression in the centre of the stage fills up with water, forming a giant puddle in which Don kicks and splashes about like an over-excitable blackbird. I was pre-warned as I had seen this segment on The Royal Variety Show, and the man in the ticket office warned me not to sit in the front four rows. Those who did got a thorough soaking. It was half time, though, so they could all dry out in the interval.
It is agreed that Kathy will dub Lina’s scenes which leads to a clever piece of film/theatre work in which Kathy sings a duet with Don – Would You? – through a sort of ventriloquist arrangement. Lina discovers the deception and is wounded. Although she sings What’s Wrong With Me? for comic effect, there is a serious side to her anguish.
As the programme notes (a touch archly), ‘It is no coincidence that the character in Singin’ in the Rain who struggles with the transition to sound is a woman. There were far more actresses whose careers suffered than there were actors. It seems that even back then, audiences were more forgiving of the imperfections of male movie stars than their female counterparts.’
This is musical theatre, however, and complexity and sympathy are eschewed in favour of sweetness and pluck. Lina threatens Kathy who agrees to perform ad her back-up for one last time in a Wizard of Oz-esque man-behind-the-curtain scene. Don and Cosmo ensure there is a happy ending, but not before Kathy flees into the audience in distress. She stood a few steps away from me in the aisle and I saw ‘real tears’.
It’s a show about dancing (The Broadway Melody by Don and Company in which he sings about how he ‘gotta dance’ is an up-tempo highlight of the second act) and the finale is a smashing, splashing treat. When Don, Kathy and Cosmo emerge in bright yellow sou’westers, the audience roars with pleasure. Some parents send their children up to the front so that they can experience the puddle stomping up close and personal.
The entire cast joins in twirling umbrellas and kicking sprays of water from the stage, casting rainbows of glee as the droplets shimmer in the lights. I’m not the only one who, after two and half hours of unashamedly feel-good entertainment, leaves the theatre with a smile on my face.