★★★★★ Silence is golden
Edinburgh Playhouse: Tue 10-Sat 21 Nov 2015
Review by Martin Gray
The Silent film era is the backdrop for a production of a musical that deserves to be shouted about.
Just why Mack & Mabel, running at Edinburgh Playhouse until 21 November, isn’t better known I can’t say. Maybe it’s that it’s never had the big screen treatment awarded to songwriter Jerry Herman’s Hello Dolly, Mame and La Cage Aux Folles.
If people remember anything about it, it’s generally that Torvill and Dean choreographed an award-winning routine to the overture.
Well, devoid of the ice skating, that overture remains jaw-dropping, blending together themes from the show’s score into a mini-melodrama. And once the show proper begins…
Fabled film producer Mack Sennett arrives at the California studio he owned. It’s been sold out from under him, but he’s come back, one last time, to remember.
It’s New York, years earlier, he’s making his latest comic melodrama, and it ain’t going terribly well – the sun’s going to be lost and his leading lady is more interested in feeding her face than getting pictures in the can.
Enter deli delivery girl Mabel Normand, who invades the set on her mission to deliver a hot dog, causes chaos… and provides priceless footage. A star is born.
Mabel stars in numerous two reelers with Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and the company joins the exodus west in search of more consistent light. In Hollywoodland, Sennett continues to give the public what he thinks they want, restricting Mabel to repetitive funnies.
Meanwhile, other studios are experimenting with longer movies – ‘features’ – and talkies are on the horizon. Frustrated, Mabel takes up more serious offers but eventually agrees to return to Sennett’s studio, on the promise of better fare.
When the planned breakout feature Molly is sidelined for weeks after Sennett accidentally comes up with the Keystone Cops, Mabel goes away once more, back into the arms of rival producer William Desmond Taylor. Despite being in love with her, Sennett somehow never notices.
And there’s more. Much more, as melodramatic as any silent movie. But I won’t give the game away. I will say that if you like musicals at all, you should make this a must-see. The book by Michael Stewart takes real events, and a bit of artistic licence, giving us a compelling drama on which to hang the songs. And what songs.
Seasoned fans of Elaine Paige’s Radio 2 show will know the regularly played I Won’t Send Roses, and perhaps the heartbreakingly gorgeous Time Heals Everything. Tap Your Troubles Away turns up in the occasional variety showcase. But hearing these songs in context, watching them presented live by brilliant performers … there’s nothing like it.
Ah yes, the performers. It should really go without saying by now that Michael Ball can open a show. Few can sell a melody as beautifully, and he’s a fine actor to boot, never letting his charisma get in the way of the character. His Sennett is a likeable guy, as chaotic in his emotions as he is in his directing style.
Ball doesn’t break character when singing the lovely I Won’t Send Roses, he makes Sennett’s sudden soppiness believable. Movies Were Movies and Hundreds of Girls are easier sells, more broadly comic, but they likewise take skill and Ball has it in spades.
Rebecca LaChance has smaller billing on the posters, but she doesn’t deserve it – she’s as much the heart of this production as Ball, an irresistible stage presence and a heck of an actor and singer. The way she balances control with emotion in Time Heals Everything is masterful, while she’s as good with a comic song – Wherever He Ain’t, say – as Ball. And she’s quite the hoofer, too.
The leads in director Jonathan Church’s precise production are backed by an ensemble featuring more character parts than usual, with Gunnar Cauthery getting possibly the best deal as newsboy turned screenwriter Frank. As he led the tender group number When Mabel Walks In The Room, I found myself aching to hear more of his singing.
Hit ‘Em on the Head is a chance for Keystone Cops-clad dancers to show their athleticism while bonking one another on the bonce, Tap Your Troubles Away shows just how fleet of foot choreographer Stephen Mear’s troupe can be. And like the best numbers, Tap moves the story along, turning on a dime to reflect sinister events.
Adding to this particular moment is the lighting design by Howard Harrison, which never fails to first set, then enhance the mood – the Hollywoodland tones alone had me wanting to leap onto the stage and bask in them.
Then there’s the video projections; you would expect a few clips of recreated Normand shorts, maybe the odd Keystone Cops moment. We do get those – and they’re impressive. But ‘astonishing’ is the word for the way all-original filmed material is integrated into the deceptively spare set designs of Robert Jones (who also gives us the edible-to-the-eyes costumes).
Jon Driscoll gets the credit as ‘video and projection designer’ and huge credit he deserves – what he does with the Hundreds of Girls sequence alone is enough to have you grinning broadly for hours, and there’s more where that came from. I’ve never seen filmed sequences integrated into a piece of theatre quite so well.
And always, there’s the orchestra led by Robert Scott, a 15-piece joy machine. They perfectly pitch every number, expertly underscore every moment, dapper angels perched above the stage, sending their heavenly sounds to the world below.
I Promise You a Happy Ending, sings Mack to Mabel. Whether he makes good on that vow, I won’t say. But I can promise you that this genius production of Mack & Mabel will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Running time: 2 hours 35 mins (including one interval)
Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, EH1 3AA
Tuesday 10 – Saturday 21 November 2015
Daily (Not Sun 15): 7.30pm;
Matinees: Weds & Sat: 2.30pm
Tickets and information from: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/mack-and-mabel/edinburgh-playhouse/
Tour website: http://mackandmabelmusical.com/
Mack & Mabel on tour:
0844 871 3014
0115 989 5555
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464