We seem to be awash with great musical revivals on the fringe and back at Southwark Playhouse, Thom Sutherland has worked wonders again on this difficult show about Mack Sennett, the master of silent movies, and his on / off relationship with actress Mabel Normand.
The story is told in flashback from the time Sennett is forced to leave his studios. We first see him churning out films at a heck of a pace from his Brooklyn studios, where he comes across the natural talent of Mabel when she delivers a bagel! Keystone studios move to Hollywood ,where their pre-eminence continues, until talkies come on the scene and Sennett refuses to change with the times. This is the backdrop for the story of the pair, both as a working partnership and as a relationship.
The Vault at Southwark Playhouse is the perfect space for a show which largely takes place in film studios and set & costume designer Jason Denvir and lighting designer Howard Hudson have done a great job creating the backstage world and the early 20th century period with a pile of props and machinery at the back which is brought forward and moved around to create many different scenes. The period costumes are excellent and the lighting is hugely atmospheric.
I loved the way the show flowed, with intimate moments drawing you in and big numbers taking your breath away. Lee Proud’s choreography is fresh and often funny and Thom Sutherland’s staging captures the organised chaos of film making but allows the characterisations to shine through. You feel as if you’ve been given an insight into this world of movie making and into the hearts of its protagonists
Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational as Mack and Mabel. Their attraction and relationship are totally believable and they sing beautifully. There’s a fine ‘supporting’ cast of 13, too many to mention but all worthy of it, and a large band of 11 (for the fringe) under Michael Bradley, who do full justice to Jerry Herman’s under-rated score.
This is a very different show to Herman’s hits Hello Dolly and Mame and more like his third hit La Cage Aux Folles in the merging of a unique world with a troubled love story. Despite its lack of commercial success, this production made me think that it’s a better show than the first two in so many ways. We don’t see it that often, and never to my knowledge on this scale, so it’s both an opportunity and a treat!