THE INTRODUCTION of musicals to the Pitlochry programme – along with the expansion of the traditional summer season into autumn and winter – has been one of the great achievements of John Durnin’s 15 years as artistic director at Pitlochry Festival Theatre; so it’s fitting that his final production, before he bows out, should be this gorgeous festive stage version of one of the best-loved film musicals of all time. The classic movie starring Gene Kelly first appeared in 1952; but the story is famously set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the new “talking pictures” were about to transform the movie industry.
Pitlochry Festival Theatre **** | King’s Theatre, Glasgow **** | Tron Theatre, Glasgow ***
The plot therefore revolves around the burgeoning romance between the multi-talented star Don Lockwood, and beautiful young actress Kathy Seldon, a fine singer with a beautiful speaking voice; and around the demise of Don’s unfortunate co-star Lina Lamont, a silent movie diva with a voice like a screech-owl. And if, like many traditional musicals, Singin In The Rain has a story that doesn’t quite measure up to modern feminist sensibilities, John Durnin’s large-scale, light-touch production – featuring a cast of 16, and backed by a nine-piece onstage orchestra – has so much fun in delivering this classic screenplay and score that the audience is won over from the opening moments.
In the show’s great set-piece song-and-dance numbers, the starring team of Grant Neal as Don, George Rae as his pal Cosmo, and Mari McGinlay as Kathy, turn in thrillingly skilful and heartfelt performances, greeted with roars of applause; and with Helen Mallon acting up a comic storm as Lena, some hilarious mocked-up silent film sequences, and showers of rain gushing cheerfully across the stage in that unforgettable Gene Kelly moment, Pitlochry has a memorable Christmas hit on its hands, to round off an artistic directorship that has set the Theatre In The Hills on course for a hugely successful 21st century.
In Glasgow, meanwhile, the big panto at the King’s celebrates the homecoming of Elaine C Smith, after many years in Christmas exile at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen. In Glasgow’s big, capacious version of Sleeping Beauty, written for Qdos Entertainment by Alan McHugh, Elaine C plays Beauty’s Fairy Godmother Bella Houston, pictured, who, along with her useless son Muddles (a slightly hesitant but beguiling Johnny Mac), is trying to save Beauty from the curse of the wicked fairy Carabosse, brilliantly played by Juliet Cadzow.
This is not a Sleeping Beauty that dwells much on the details of the story; instead, it creates plenty of space for Elaine C Smith to deliver song-based sequences including her memorable Adele impression, and a rousing version of the great Weegie anthem I Belong To Glasgow. Yet Nick Winston’s production features such a classy Glasgow cast, such inventive use of filmed news bulletins about upheaval in Weegieland, and such a lavish use of vital panto traditions including a terrific final song-sheet, that its cheeky approach to narrative is more than forgivable; and the whole show emerges as a classic spectacular big-city panto, confident of where it comes from, and – more or less – of where it’s going.
The mythical realm of Weegieland also features in this year’s Johnny McKnight meta-panto at the Tron; but this time, it represents an updated version of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Diving down a manhole after her beloved cat Dinah, Daisy Ann Fletcher’s earnest north-of-England Alice finds herself in a Glaswegian wonderland full of people wearing tracksuit bottoms and hair-scrunchies; and throughout the first half of the show, the fun comes fast and furious, with some fine songs by musical director Ross Brown.
After the interval, though, it becomes increasingly clear, in Kenny Miller’s production, that this is not the cheerily rebellious Glasgow of popular myth, but a sinister place tyrannised by Darren Brownlie’s terrifying Queen of Hearts, who – in a highly disturbing panto image - is served by minions with blank black faces, dressed like the female slaves in Gone With The Wind. The story totters, as Queen, Caterpillar and Mad Hatter indulge in self-absorbed monologues and conversations so long-drawn out that they seem like padding to cover some backstage disaster; and although there’s plenty to enjoy here - not least Kenny Miller’s gloriously checkered Bridget Riley-style set – Alice In Weegieland is a show that sadly loses its panto rhythm, long before it reaches the end of the story.
Singin’ In The Rain until 23 December; Sleeping Beauty and Alice In Weegieland both until 7 January.