BRISTOL seems to be the place for guarantees in the midst of uncertainty recently, especially in the theatres: to guarantee England’s victory in the soccer World Cup, all you had to do was go and see the excellent World Cup Final 1966 at Bristol Old Vic, and to combat the vagaries of the British climate for the next two weeks, you can guarantee rain by visiting the Hippodrome.
For fans of the film, this stage adaptation is a loving and caring version, transferring most of the key scenes, much of the choreography, and all of the songs, with a few extra ones from the period added. The show stands on its own however, without any prior knowledge of the film, an early example of what is now called a Jukebox Musical: all of the songs, by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, had previously appeared in Hollywood musicals of the 1920s and 1930s.
The story, of a couple of film stars and their move from silent film to talkies, allows for plenty of drama, especially as the leading lady Lily Lamont, played with conviction and strength by Vicky Binns, has a voice more similar to crow than human, and has to be “dubbed”, or re-recorded, by the leading man’s real-life love interest Kathy Seldon, played by Amy Ellen Richardson, who has a light, lyrical voice, and is a great dancer. Ironically, in the film, this part was played by a young Debbie Reynolds, and two of her songs were themselves dubbed by one of the “ghost” voices of Hollywood, Betty Noyes.
The lead role of matinee idol Don Lockwood, created on film by Gene Kelly, is played by James Leece, who is endearing, talented on every level, and a genuine triple threat – he can sing, act and dance to perfection, as can Stephane Anelli in the role of Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor in the film). Anelli also has great comic timing, physical and verbal, and regularly plays for sympathy from the audience, to great effect.
A couple of familiar faces play key minor roles in the show: Maxwell Caulfield reminded me of Brando as studio boss R F Simpson and Jacqueline Clarke, for a long time part of Dave Allen’s repertory sketch company in the late 1970s, is tough and feisty as red carpet reporter Dora Bailey.
The scene most people will know best is recreated in genuine torrential rain, with Leece revelling in the water, enjoying the fact that many of his dance steps are soaking the first few rows of the audience, and this rain returns at the very end of the show when the whole cast join in the routine.
As with so many of these major tours of musicals today, the real stars of this show are the ensemble; sixteen young, fit, strong, accurate dancers and singers who can hit every spot as and when needed, both physically on the stage and musically, with some fantastic dance routines and wonderful close harmony singing, all supported by an orchestra that keeps the show swinging from start to finish, led by John Donovan with some magical fills, especially from the lower (bass and baritone) end of the brass and woodwind sections, and all resting on solid bass and drums from Mat Elliot and Barry Brewer respectively.
You have until Saturday 9 August to see this show at Bristol, with the guarantee of two showers and top-notch song and dance at every performance, after which it carries on around the country, returning locally to Southampton for the second half of September.
Photograph Chris Nash/Manuel Harlan