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Reviewed: Singin' in the Rain at Kilworth House Theatre

Glamour, the golden age of Hollywood, and the birth of the talkies in this classic musical.

Singin' in the Rain is this summer's production at Kilworth House Theatre.
Singin' in the Rain is this summer's production at Kilworth House Theatre.

Kilworth House Theatre (KHT) is often incorrectly described as one of Leicester's hidden gems; to my mind, it's better than that. Certainly, it may be hidden in the sense that not everyone knows about it or has made the effort to go, but for those in the know, it's the perfect summer treat.


It's one of my favourite theatrical experiences; specifically, the walk from the car park, across the bridge and through the trees, into the clearing where the Celia McKay Theatre is situated (named for its founder and long-time producer). It allows the perfect amount of time to build excitement and anticipation for whatever production you're about to watch.


Open-air natural surroundings mean the experience is cunningly restricted to an annual adventure, meaning I'm not there often enough for the novelty to wear off. I genuinely love it.


Pre-pandemic, KHT would produce two professional musicals per summer, but post-Covid, that has been reduced to one, making it even more special (though I wouldn't be sad if they returned to two...). For 2024, it's the return of an absolute icon: Singin' in the Rain.


Last staged at Kilworth in 2015 (I saw that production too), Singin' in the Rain is described in the programme as "the musical for people who don't like musicals". A lot of musicals make that claim, but with its easy humour, classic score, and slice of cinematic history, the statement is likely justified.


As someone who does like musicals, I was smiling from the first notes of the overture.


Singin' in the Rain is the stage adaptation of the 1952 film that starred Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. A musical very much built around Kelly, it depicts the 1927 introduction of "talking pictures" when synchronised audio was first added to silent movies. The success of The Jazz Singer causes a mad panic in Hollywood, as every major studio looks to jump on the band wagon.


This is a problem for the greatest romantic-leading duo of the age – Don Lockwood (Jack Wilcox) and Lina Lamont (Jess Buckby) – as their silent film success is heavily reliant on the public having never heard Lina's grating speaking voice. The advent of the talkies creates a real problem for their new picture, The Duelling Cavalier.


Enter Kathy Selden (Lucie-Mae Sumner), a theatre actress, singer and dancer with a beautiful voice. As Don and Kathy fall for each other, his best friend Cosmo Brown (Alastair Crosswell) proposes that they make the struggling production a musical – rechristened The Dancing Cavalier – with Kathy dubbing Lina's voice. Lina does not take this well...


Wilcox gives a charismatic performance as Don, with a real throwback leading-man charm. He encapsulates the glamour of old Hollywood, and like the majority of the cast, is a true triple-threat (actor, singer, dancer), and his accent never waivers. He seems unfazed by the responsibility of delivering iconic numbers like the title song or "Good Morning" – you're in safe hands throughout.

Don Lockwood (Jack Wilcox) during "Singin' in the Rain".
Don Lockwood (Jack Wilcox) during "Singin' in the Rain".

There's also a cheekiness to his performance, as though he's so enjoying being in the show that he's not afraid to let the audience know it. His deliberate character break at the end of act one to splash the front row with water makes for a lovely moment (unless you're in the front row, I suppose...).


He's equalled by Sumner, who makes Kathy incredibly easy to root for. Her wonderfully expressive face (you never question what the character is feeling throughout her first encounter with Don) is matched by a vocal that's perfectly suited to the period and an elegant, captivating dance talent.

Lucie-Mae Sumner as Kathy Selden.
Lucie-Mae Sumner as Kathy Selden.

Much of the comedic heavy-lifting falls on Crosswell as Cosmo, and he ably takes the weight. He brilliantly clowns about the stage during "Make 'Em Laugh", and his dance duet-turned-trio with Don and Miss Dinsmore for "Moses Supposes" is immaculately done.


Buckby's portrayal of Lina borders on pantomime villain, in the best way possible. The conceit of the role (that piercing voice) was so well known to the audience in advance that they were already giggling to themselves each time Don pushed Lina away from any microphone. And Buckby has fun with this. Lina is indignant, self-important, and wickedly self-preservative; every bit the Hollywood diva that Don isn't. Her performance of "What's Wrong With Me?" is a highlight.

Jess Buckby as Lina Lamont.
Jess Buckby as Lina Lamont

The supporting cast are strong. Mark Curry is charming as studio head R.F. Simpson; Austen Garrett was fun in the role of director Roscoe Dexter; and Julia J Nagle brought a welcome eccentricity to elocutionist Miss Dinsmore and radio announcer Dora Bailey. The ensemble do a great job of adding to the production. They're actually on stage a lot, populating the studio without pulling focus from the main action, and delivering incredibly smooth scenery transitions.


Here's a hot take: The "Broadway Melody/Rhythm" section is absolutely ridiculous. An entire dance sequence so out of context from the rest of the musical that it borders on the absurd. It has a vibe of 'Gene Kelly really wanted to do a big, contemporary dance sequence and the studio didn't want to say no'. But in doing so, it cursed every stage-version that would follow for the rest of time with a complete narrative diversion.


Don't get me wrong, it's very well executed, and it gives Wilcox and the ensemble an opportunity to show off their superb dance credentials, but there can't be many other musicals that abandon their entire premise – and even their era – just to crowbar in a set piece with a very flimsy justification.


(Actually, now I think about it, I'm pretty sure An American in Paris does the same thing, so it might just be a Gene Kelly trademark...)


Anyway...


Director and choreographer Lee Proud transports you to the glamour of 1920s' Hollywood, and immerses you in the world. Proud's instincts are strong throughout, with inventive ways to deliver key moments of the show. I will say, the choreography is not always perfectly synchronised, such as in "All I Do Is Dream of You", although it may be a deliberate choice to add to the chaos of the party setting.


And there are occasional points where I would like a little more wow-factor. For example, the title song that closes act one is perhaps too iconic for its own good, making it difficult to add anything new. It feels like a case of 'well we have to swing the umbrella, and we have to do the lamppost pose, so how can we connect those dots?' However, I appreciate that you've got to hold something back for the curtain call reprise. It may also be true that Morecambe and Wise set too high a bar for me decades ago!


I adored the set. When KHT staged Singin' in the Rain in 2015, it did so with an abstract, art-deco-meets-contemporary set that was neither one thing nor the other. This time around, it's a Hollywood soundstage with sliding barn doors to allow the cinema screen and other large pieces of scenery to enter. It establishes the setting perfectly.

The set from Singin' in the Rain recalls the golden-era of Hollywood soundstages.
The set from Singin' in the Rain recalls the golden-era of Hollywood soundstages

Overall, this is a treat of a show, and even greater when enjoyed in the open-air woodland setting. If you've not been to Kilworth House Theatre before, you won't regret making Singin' in the Rain your first visit. If you're a KHT veteran, what are you waiting for?


★★★★½


Singin' in the Rain is running at Kilworth House Theatre until July 28, 2024, and is then followed by a programme of music and tribute acts. Full line up on the theatre website.

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