Still singin' after all these years

Singin' In The Rain | National Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

There's a great gag in the middle of Singin' in the Rain. Cosmo (Mark Channon) tries to explain his great production number to the studio boss. And on comes the entire company who do the number right there - and boy, is it a number. It builds and builds to the sound of the audience sighing with sheer pleasure. At the climax, the audience goes wild and the boss shakes his head. "I can't quite visualise it," he says. "Could you do it again?" Oh, yes please.

There's a great gag in the middle of Singin' in the Rain. Cosmo (Mark Channon) tries to explain his great production number to the studio boss. And on comes the entire company who do the number right there - and boy, is it a number. It builds and builds to the sound of the audience sighing with sheer pleasure. At the climax, the audience goes wild and the boss shakes his head. "I can't quite visualise it," he says. "Could you do it again?" Oh, yes please.

Jude Kelly's West Yorkshire Playhouse production - now at the National Theatre - takes visualisation to the extreme, and then some. She and the Huntley/Muir design partnership dispense with backdrops and instead use three enormous screens across the back of the set on which they project film and static pictures to complement the scenes, in the manner of the 90s Broadway revival of another classic musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

At least, that's the intention. Some of these coloured-chalk, Picasso-like projections are simple, witty and warm but other moving images are distracting and split your focus. You don't know which to watch, the screens or the actors and their story, which writers and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom were at the first night) cooked up 49 years ago when they tied together a bunch of Arthur Freed songs with a new plot. And guess what? They wound up with the flat-out best Hollywood musical ever.

An American in Paris? Forget it. That's Hollywood's self-conscious attempt at art. Singin' in the Rain is written with affection not affectation, and never forgets for one second that it's about snappy entertainment - it's serious about being funny. After all, it was based on the tragedy of silent star John Gilbert, whose career vanished when the talkies revealed him as just a pretty face. Comden and Green's tale tells of dumb (platinum) blonde Lina Lamont, whose nasal Brooklyn whine threatens her future in the talkies. But Kathy, the girlfriend of Lina's co-star, saves her by dubbing her. Or does she?

Personally, I love Gene Kelly jumping joyously in puddles but that's it. Unlike him, likeable Paul Robinson doesn't play insistence, he spreads happiness, which is wonderfully refreshing. Zoe Hart can't match Debbie Reynolds for perkiness but she's open-hearted and her winning voice is clear as a bell, while Rebecca Thornhill's riotous Lina sounds like a cross between a parrot and a high-speed drill. She's terrific in the new number, "What's Wrong with Me" but its inclusion is intensely problematic. If Lina can deliver a number as well as this, who needs a stand-in? Exit the entire premise.

Two key questions hover over the show. Why mess with a masterpiece and why stage a movie about movies? Because you've got a genius choreographer, that's why. The actors can play the comedy, but the energy plummets between scenes because Jude Kelly cannot make her show flow.

Mercifully, Stephen Mear's constantly surprising, effervescent musical staging makes your pulse-rate rocket. When the elocution teacher suddenly lets her hair down and joins in the flying tap number "Moses Supposes", she squeals with joy and it's very, very hard not to join in. By the time Mear's knockout finale arrives, it's pouring with rain, the company is having a ball and the audience is on the ceiling. Wet, wet, wet? Go, go, go.

To 20 July, 020-7452 3000. A version of this review appeared in later editions of Friday's newspaper

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