Is it something they put in the water in Southwark and Lambeth? These two inner London boroughs certainly punch far greater than their weight when it comes to musical theatre at fringe venues. A succession of quality and in some cases, award-winning productions, have formed from seeds that germinate here and the latest to join the pedigree is Mack And Mabel at Southwark Playhouse, produced by Danielle Torento. Director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud give a feast for the eyes with a hard-working and eager cast keen to deliver.
Norman Bowman impresses immensely. His role as movie-maker Mack Sennett is totally believable, I bought into him from the first second and that remained with me until the last. His strong voice, presence and posture fills the cavernous auditorium and although perhaps the story has no happy ending, he ensures the audience leave with a smile on their faces. Laura Pitt-Pulford is the cherry on top of the sundae as Mabel Normand, the sandwich delivery girl who makes it big in silent movies after Mack spots that something special in her. Although affinity with her character takes a short while to mature, by the time Pitt-Pulford gets to her big solo ‘Wherever He Ain’t’, she has the room hanging off every word she sings. Aptly seeming to come from nowhere, taking everyone by surprise, just like Mabel does herself.
Jerry Herman’s score is one of his strongest and must be a pleasure for Michael Bradley to work with as Musical Director. A large, unseen band add to the ‘big production’ atmosphere. There are many ensemble numbers, freshly delivered by a company that is clearly enjoying every minute, building to a crescendo with the marvellous dance number ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ gloriously costumed in the favoured art deco gold and black of the 1920s and delightfully choreographed by Proud. Not an easy task on the uneven and dusty concrete floor, which presents problems even with judicious use of tap boards, but nonetheless the end result is worthy of all the effort.
This is a busy production on many levels, with a perfectly cluttered design to represent the randomness of a US movie studio. The decision to use a wheeled step tower is inspired and adds not only height but gravity at key moments in this well-executed drama of love, fame and (lack of) fortune. Then, of course, there are the Keysone Cops for which this musical is possibly best known. The build up to their second act arrival is maybe the only point in the show which isn’t quite working as well as it might. A flurry of slapstick activity immediately before the police enter doesn’t really reach the degree of amusement it could; but just as that becomes apparent in come the cops and suddenly hilarity takes over with the glorious ‘Hit ‘Em On the Head’ routine, with masterful comic timing. Every element looks so easily delivered but you can be sure it’s taken hours to perfect.
The combination of great music and lyrics, charming direction and crisp choreography make it a must-see for any musical theatre fan this summer.
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by Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
5th July - 25th August
Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1.
The creative team behind last year’s critically acclaimed, multi award-nominated revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade now bring you Mack and Mabel.
Mack and Mabel explores the romance of movie director Mack Sennett (Norman Bowman) and his screen star Mabel Norman (Laura Pitt-Pulford) in the early days of motion pictures. Although the original 1974 Broadway production, book by Michael Stewart with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, was nominated for 8 Tony Awards, the critics claimed Mack and Mabel’s mysterious love story got lost amongst the glitz and glamour of turning a bittersweet tale into a full scale musical comedy during a period where rock musicals were dominating.
Director Thom Sutherland has been given permission to make extensive changes to the piece.
“We have been granted permission to alter the script for the show. This has included cutting characters, removing songs and changing the dramatic ‘device’ in which the story is told. Most importantly, we have been allowed to rewrite the ending.
“The heart of Mack and Mabel lies in the turbulent love story between the two characters and has been previously been hidden behind the glamour of Hollywood and a lavish Broadway musical. By turning Mack’s camera around, we are asking the audience to look past the lens and beyond the films he made and focus on the world behind the camera, which shows us the truth, not the musical fantasy, that their tragic story deserves.”
Mack and Mabel will run for 8 weeks in The Vault at Southwark Playhouse from July 5th - August 25th.
This revival is directed by Thom Sutherland, musically directed by Michael Bradley and produced by Danielle Tarento in association with Southwark Playhouse. If the history of this team is anything to go by then Southwark will be sizzling this summer with another sold out smash.
The cast also includes: Jessica Martin (Lottie Ames), Stuart Matthew Price (Frank), Richard J Hunt (Fatty Arbuckle), Jody Ellen Robinson (Ella), Steven Serlin (Mr Kessel), Peter Kenworthy (William Desmond Taylor), Anthony Wise (Eddie) and Jessica Buckby, Natalie Kent, Nikki Schofield, Ryan Gover, Paul Hutton, Jonathan Norman.