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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mack & Mabel
Southwark Playhouse   Summer 2012

This is the most-nearly-successful production of Mack & Mabel you are ever likely to see – and if you know the history of Jerry Herman's seemingly cursed 1974 musical, you'll understand that this is quite high praise. 

That Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage Aux Folles) could have a flop seemed unthinkable four decades ago, and has seemed that way ever since, spurring several revivals and rewritings, none of which have conquered the musical's inherent difficulties. 

This new version directed by Thom Southerland, based on a 1995 rewrite by Francine Pascal, with further tweaks by Southerland, comes closest to making the story of silent film director Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand work. But if Southerland conquers one set of problems, he finds some new ones that keep this revival just short of complete success. 

With everyone agreeing that the score is top-level Jerry Herman, with his signature mastery of both show-stopping production numbers and heart-stopping ballads, the problem has always been traced to the book, be it Michael Stewart's original or any of the revisions. 

Trying to set a serious romantic drama against a backdrop of slapstick comedy is inherently difficult, as is sustaining a romance between two figures disinclined to express their emotions openly. Add to that the inescapable fact that the most life-changing events in each character's life were totally separate from their relationship and happened when they were apart, and you either have to shoehorn these things awkwardly into the musical or violate history to omit them. 

Sutherland navigates these difficulties by stripping the story down to an outline – girl meets workaholic, workaholic loses girl – that still leaves a lot of loose ends and has to rush through some of the inconvenient facts in the last half-hour, but is something that an audience can accept and follow and that proves sufficient to carry Jerry Herman's score. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford captures the bubbling personality, high energy and wit that made Normand a star, and is at her best in the first act's happiest scenes and songs, like Look What Happened To Mabel. But she has trouble making the transition to tragic heroine, and her big eleven o'clock number Time Heals Everything doesn't stop the show as it should. 

Norman Bowman gets Sennett's monomania about making funny movies and his difficulty expressing (or even acknowledging to himself) any other emotions, but there's too little sense of the inarticulate romantic within, even in the show's best song I Won't Send Roses, and he comes across as nastier and considerably less sympathetic than the show or the audience want him to be. 

There's strong support by Jessica Martin and Stuart Matthew Price, their characterisations complicated in this version by narrator functions, which they carry smoothly. 

Director Southerland keeps things moving nicely, but choreographer Lee Proud's invention seems to wax and wane. Tap Your Troubles Away is a delight, and we can forgive the difficulty in carrying off Hundreds And Hundreds Of Girls with a chorus line of three, but the big show-stopper When Mabel Comes In The Room (virtually a Hello Dolly clone) never catches fire. 

Earlier, Make The World Laugh begs for a dance evocation of slapstick that it never gets, but Proud redeems himself with a Keystone Kops ballet that is as fast-moving, inventive and downright funny as you could ask for. 

Special mention must be made of Andrew Johnson's sound design, which so clumsily overamplifies everything that at no time in spoken dialogue or singing will you ever hear a natural human voice, that when an actor is standing Over Here his voice will be coming from Somewhere Over There, and that you will constantly be looking around the stage trying to find someone whose lips are moving, to identify the source of a disembodied voice. 

So, some problems solved, some new ones discovered – as I said, all-in-all as close to a successful Mack & Mabel as you're likely to encounter.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Mack & Mabel - Southwark Playhouse 2012

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