Saturday 27th December 2014
It was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that we approached Highgate to see ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, the latest production at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. We couldn’t wait to see how they would manage a musical this big in a venue this small – could they pull it off? And when we got into the auditorium and saw that the seating layout was in the traverse configuration, a bugbear about which we have spoken many, too many, times, we wondered how they could possibly overcome the twin obstacles of a terrible seating arrangement and an iconic and much-loved movie to live up to. <spoiler alert> Yes they can, and they do!
The plot might be from the fifties, but it feels very up to date, with themes that are if anything more relevant than ever – the insecurity of success in show business, the cult of celebrity and the apparent conflict between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment’. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are a celebrated on-screen couple, however, with the talkies looming, Lina’s less that appealing voice threatens their partnership. Meanwhile, as she hopes to take their relationship to the next level, Lockwood has fallen in love with the sweet and talented Kathy Seldon and wants to boost her career with the studio boss – but will talent alone be enough in the face of the vengeful Lamont’s machinations?
Director John Plews has delivered quite a coup here – by focussing on what mattered in the film – love, relationships (good and bad) and the joys (and frustrations) of creativity, we really don’t need big production numbers. With a talented cast and perfectly pitched performances, the whole production captures the tone of the film, and brings an extra intimacy which has its own rewards. We’d even go so far as to say that this is the best use of a traverse layout we have seen – not perfect as there were still some frustrating ‘back of head’ moments, but by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus, we felt part of the action. Instead of being a hindrance, the small space brings a spontaneity to the dance sequences and freshness to the choreography of such famous numbers as ‘Singin’ in the rain’, ‘Good Mornin’ and ‘Moses Supposes’, re-capturing the warmth and simplicity of the original. Add to that the film clips and out-takes charting the rocky progress of ‘The duelling Cavalier’ to ‘The Dancing Cavalier’, courtesy of some skilful overdubbing, and the hilarity is complete.
The cast were all excellent, with strong leads well supported by the small but versatile chorus. ‘Tough Act to follow’ doesn’t quite cover it when describing Simon Adkins’ task in taking on Don Lockwood, a character made so famous by Gene Kelly, especially given the iconic title sequence. Adkins has a likeable charm and a warm singing voice which more than does justice to the music, and when it came to that song (and yes, there was real precipitation), he didn’t attempt to replicate the original step for step, but he did make it his own, conveying the sheer joy behind the song, and had us all rooting for him. Paul Harwood as sidekick, musical genius and all-round fixer Cosmo Brown brings high energy and a truly child-like joy in sheer silliness, coupled with a touching loyalty to Don which seems to involve single-handedly saving his career and sorting out his love-life. Kathy Seldon is by contrast the sane character in an insane world, and Frankie Jenna brings an unpretentious and feisty dignity, whether climbing out of a cake or delivering a custard pie in the face, not to mention a beautiful singing voice, whether delivering romantic gems such as ‘You are my lucky star’ or the more lighthearted joyfulness of ‘Good mornin”. Thea Jo Wolfe as Lina Lamont has the unenviable task of portraying an actress with a voice so terrible it could bring down a studio, and she rises to the challenge with vocal chords set to stun. More importantly, she has impeccable comic timing and pace – her elocution lessons are a joy to behold, not to mention her inability to locate a microphone while filming. Although she is technically the villain of the piece, she is also a victim of the star system, and Wolfe manages to elicit sympathy along with the ridicule. Matt Jolly stands out from the chorus and has some nice cameos including the elocution teacher, the policeman, as well as leading the delightful ‘beautiful girl’ interlude. Lindsay Atherton also delivers an impressive dance sequence in ‘the broadway ballet’.
One of the biggest ironies we found out about when researching the film was that, in a story all about the perils of overdubbing and how it would ‘ruin’ a young woman’s career to be the uncredited voice of a star, Debbie Reynold’s voice was dubbed by an uncredited Betty Noyes for three of her songs, and when she was meant to be overdubbing Lina Lamont’s speech in the film, Jean Hagan, the actress playing Lina Lamont, used her own voice which was deemed superior. You literally couldn’t make it up! Just to add insult to injury, it’s reported that Gene Kelly subsequently overdubbed Reynolds’ tap-dancing steps in ‘Good Mornin”. Which just goes to show that sometimes you can’t beat a live performance for that authentic joy and excitement. No overdubbing here, just a highly talented cast of singers, dancers and actors in a tiny space with an excellent director. Long may they rain!