We have been devout Hermanites ever since attending a Jerry Herman gala in 2007 with the distinctly luxury casting of John Barrowman, Maria Friedman, Clarke Peters and Debbie Gravitte. Since then we’ve clocked up ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ and ‘Hello Dolly’. Would Mack and Mabel prove to be similarly entertaining? Even if the plot was rubbish, the show contains an extraordinary number of winning songs – no wonder Torvill and Dean won a medal using the music. Fortunately though, Michael Stewart’s book tells the tragic story of the self-destructive couple with emotional punch which is more than a match for the music.
The musical is loosely based on the symbiotic love affair between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. Sennett was the silent movie director who created the Keystone Cops and Mabel Normand was his young protegé. As she begins to feel trapped by his domineering attitude she tries to escape but never fully succeeds. Mack meanwhile never manages to admit that he truly loves her.
As we have previously found at the Southwark playhouse, the small space is used very effectively. Wall-to-wall shelves of movie paraphernalia dominate the set, but these are not just decorative, as the cleverly choreographed move of the film company from New York to California shows. The pacing of the action is frantic (to quote Mack himself), perhaps necessarily so given the running time, and Thom Southerland makes sure that the songs are always part of the action rather stopping it. The choreography by Lee Proud is delightful, bringing a taste of the creativity of the times, where all things are possible and ideas are plentiful. Three set pieces stand out – ‘bathing beauties’, the keystone cops sequence, and the number ‘Tap your troubles away’, which through its joyous tap choreography simultaneously signifies the beginning of Sennett’s demise.
The whole cast bring tremendously focused energy, which is essential with so many group scenes in such a small space. They really create the sense that we are on a movie set nearly a hundred years ago. As Mack Sennett, Norman Bowman perfectly inhabits the archetypal director as dictator. Full of ego yet demonstrably talented, he just can’t understand why anyone would disagree with him. When he sings that he ‘Won’t Send Roses’ we believe him, and the sight of him trying to make up for lost time and romance when it’s too late is painfully tragic.
As Mabel, Laura Pitt-Pulford shows us the transformation from innocent newcomer (‘Look what happened to Mabel’) to world-weary star (‘Time heals everything’) with unerring accuracy, subtlely hinting at growing emotional fragility beneath the bravado. Vocally and emotionally hers is an outstanding performance which fulfills the promise she displayed when we saw her as Betty Shaefer in Craig Revel Horwood’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’. A star is born indeed!
The leads were ably abetted by their supporting cast, none more so than Richard J Hunt as Fatty Arbuckle (an uncanny likeness) and Jessica Martin as Lottie Ames, the older and wiser survivor.
Whilst we were generally happy with the use of space, it has to be noted that there were times when the staging made it difficult to see the action, most notably when Mack sings the pivotal number of the piece, ‘I Won’t Send Roses’. Hearing the entire song whilst looking at the back of Norman Bowman’s head did detract a little from our enjoyment, and there were other times when cast members were obscuring our view. Overall, however, these were minor niggles in an outstanding show – do what we didn’t do and queue early to get the best seats.
We’ve often wondered why Jerry Herman seems to get so little attention compared to his contemporary Stephen Sondheim, but at least Southwark Playhouse are doing their bit to redress the balance, and continuing to offer the type of quality and variety that makes the West End more and more irrelevant. Let’s hope the rise of the bijousical continues.