Thursday 26 July 2012

Mack & Mabel - Review

Norman Bowman and
Laura Pitt -Pulford
Southwark Playhouse, London


Book by Michael Stewart
Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Revised by Francine Pascal
Directed by Thom Southerland

Mack & Mabel is a dark musical. A relationship between the two leads that is often defined by “anti-love” songs and a second act that spirals inexorably to a finale of misery. Yet within this darkness, musical numbers are included that range from the highest levels of hope, through to spectacular glitzy tap routines, and a hilarious pinch of slapstick. And such is the strength of this show that every single number is in perfect context.
Produced by Danielle Tarento, who together with Southerland, staged the award winning Parade at this venue last year, Mack & Mabel charts the interweaving of the lives of silent “two-reel movie” director Mack Sennett, with Mabel Normand, a deli delivery girl from Brooklyn whose charismatic beauty and potential he spots on set and who he elevates to stardom. For a review of Mabel's Wilful Way,  a Mack&Mabel movie, click here.

Set in the early 20th century, the show in sub-plot touches upon the rise of the full length motion picture and the introduction of the talkies, but these are merely a backdrop to the arc of the ill fated lovers.
As Mack, Norman Bowman is outstanding. Costumed in a cream suit throughout, and frequently fedora’d to shield the bright Californian sun, he is every inch the caricature of a dominating movie director yet one who also possesses a touching vulnerability, with chiselled good looks perfectly matching the strength and sweetness of his tenor voice. In the opening number, describing his early career, Bowman sings Movies Were Movies with an energy and flair that it is nigh impossible to look away from . Later in the first act, alone with Mabel, he defines his lack of loving sensitivity with the poignant I Won't Send Roses, the melody from which serves as an occasional emotionally charged motif at subsequent moments.  The show opened two weeks prior to this review and already Bowman is deservedly being spoken of as a nominee for an Off West End award for leading actor.
 An outstanding Mack needs a Mabel of similar pedigree. Laura Pitt-Pulford shone in Parade last year, and knowing that she would lead in this show, only added to the pre-show anticipation. Pitt-Pulford’s performance exceeded expectations that were already sky high. She charted Mabel’s journey, plucked from obscurity to super-stardom, the enjoyment of the movie-star’s life and her ultimate succumbing to substance abuse, simply exquisitely. Mabel is drawn ironically moth-like, to her love for Mack and movies and the show gives her songs that are often melancholy. Wherever He Ain't, and Time Heals Everything, whilst both of different tempos, are very much are the expressions of a woman who is suffering. Throughout Act 2, Pitt-Pulford puts on a masterclass of fragility that is at once heartbreaking, yet sublime. She captures Mabel’s vulnerability in a performance the fidelity of which is rarely seen on the West End, let alone London’s fringe.
The supporting cast excelled to a person. In the key role of Lottie Ames, Jessica Martin sung and tap-danced inspiringly. The accomplished Stuart Matthew Price played a slick Frank Capra, the one regret of the evening being that the book did not allow his character more solo spots.  Impressive too was Steven Serlin as movie producer Kessel, portraying his characters Jewishness skilfully and recognisably whilst avoiding crass stereotype.
It has been written before that Tarento is committed to the highest of production values. It is clear that she commands the respect of many of theatre’s most talented practitioners, evidenced by the strength of the shows creative team. Lee Proud’s choreography was dazzling. Whilst all of the the show’s movement was slick, his working of Hundreds Of Girls, Hit ‘Em On The Head. Tap Your Troubles Away truly seemed to transport one from a vault in Southwark to a Hollywood back-lot with a tap routine that could have easily graced any major commercial show.
Good light is critical to movie making. From the outset Tarrento’s team have sought to ensure that Jason Denvir’s design is lit effectively and Howard Hudson has delivered what is perhaps the best lighting design seen in London’s fringe. Cleverly evoking at different times studio lights both in front of and behind camera as well as the bright Hollywood sunshine, Hudson’s craft adds another dimension to the rich tableau of this production.  Michael Bradley’s musical direction and vocal arrangement were also well planned and Andrew Johnson’s sound design ensured that lyrics and dialog remained clear above the faultless sound of the band. And all of this directed by Thom Southerland, who has longed to put on this show for many years. He is a credit to his ambitions.
Mack & Mabel has no fancy hydraulics, green costumes or make up, and even the projected movies are simply suggested by a flickering light . (Another inspired Hudson touch)  Mercifully, it has also been spared the modern day casting couch of a TV talent show. In place of those gimmicks it presents a stunning theatrical company delivering excellence through every word, musical note and dance step.

Runs until August 25th

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