Festival Theatre, Chichester – until 5 September 2015
There is much about Jonathan Church’s Mack and Mabel at Chichester that displays the very best of modern British musical theatre talent. Amidst a tale of humour and tragedy, the production frames a collection of performances and creative work, much of which is flawless.
Michael Stewart’s book, revised by his sister Francine Pascal, famously tackles a complex history. Telling the true story of the love between movie director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, the star he discovered, is a challenge. The show charts Normand’s rise from deli delivery girl, to the heights of Hollywood fame, before an early death hastened by addiction and scandal – and all played out against a collection of numbers that blend melancholy with the madcap farce of Hollywood’s silent slapstick golden years. It is a combination of tableaux that has longed proved a challenge to its (stage) directors.
Michael Ball plays Sennett in a performance that imbues the Hollywood director’s vision and ruthless singleness of purpose with a magnificent stage presence and masterful vocals. Ball is arguably unmatched in his abilities – and his range: imperious in “Movies Were Movies” and perceptively tender in the beautifully crafted “I Won’t Send Roses” defines his place in the musical theatre pantheon.
Broadway import Rebecca La Chance makes her UK debut as Mabel – and it’s a tough ask. If her performance lacks the impish defiance that her opening number Look What Happened To Mabel demands, she makes up for it with a powerfully scornful Wherever He Ain’t. La Chance’s work in act 2 impresses as she captures Normand’s capricious management of fame alongside a drug-fuelled decline. Her final solo Time Heals Everything (set in the 1920’s and with La Chance clad as a gorgeously shimmering flapper – great design work from Robert Jones) offering a scorching torch-song in its interpretation.
Stephen Mear’s choreography is as inspired as it is ingenious. The little touches that include a trio routine that kicks off Wherever He Ain’t are a treat – whilst the big ensemble numbers all impress. Hundreds Of Girls wittily combines projections with dance (as well as some eye-watering work with beach balls) whilst Hit ‘Em On The Head weaves a Keystone Cops yarn into a routine whose technical excellence suggests David Toguri’s ground-breaking work at the National Theatre more than thirty years ago.
Act two’s penultimate number Tap Your Troubles Away has long been the show’s big dance routine and in a revelatory move, Mear intricately links Normand’s addictions with the flamboyant splendour of his tap-dancing company. It’s all black waistcoats / basques and red shoes, led by the jaw-dropping Anna-Jane Casey’s Lottie whose feet become a blur of brilliance. Mark Inscoe’s William Desmond Taylor is an elegantly competitive cad to Sennett, whilst Jack Edwards’ Fatty (Arbuckle) similarly adds a convincing layer.
Robert Scott conducts his 15 piece ensemble (heavy on brass and reeds) gorgeously – setting the scene with one of the finest overtures in the canon.
The show runs until September before embarking on a nationwide tour. With Jerry Herman’s classic melodies, Michael Ball’s peerless performance and Stephen Mear’s dance work it’s well worth catching.
Runs until 5th September and then tours.
To read my review of Mabel’s Wilful Way, a Mack Sennett two-reeler and watch the film itself on YouTube, click here