Mack & Mabel review – scintillating choreography steals the show

Big numbers and slapstick form the true beating heart of Chichester’s revival of the 1974 musical

~ The Guardian by Claire Brennen - 26/07/15 ~

IMack and Mabel the title says equals, the plot says not. This 1974 musical, – a fabrication of fact and fiction – is delivered in flashback from the point of view of Mack Sennett (1880-1960). Mack admits to two obsessions: movies and Mabel Normand (1892-1930). He is the struggling director in the teens of the 20th century, who transplants his team to California, sets up Keystone Studios and rat-a-tats out slapstick two-reelers. She is the girl from the deli who erupts on to the set with a sandwich delivery. Mack spots potential. Mabel becomes a star.

They fall in love, but he’s not romantic (“I won’t send roses”); she is (dreamily reprising this declaration of non-commitment). He wants “to make the world laugh”; she wants acting to be more than pratfalls and guffaws. Michael Ball’s Mack is all grit, snarl and raw energy. Rebecca LaChance convincingly transforms from gawk to actress, at first by bounds (hat-raising horse gallops; scarf-flapping, aircraft cockpit dramas) and then by degrees (introduced to awareness of her own talents by Gunnaur Cauthery’s writer Frank).

Artistic differences tear them apart – spectacularly when Mabel’s on-set explosion sets off the custard-pie fight. She leaves to make feature films; he launches the Bathing Beauties, Keystone Cops and a thousand pie-in-the-face gags: “No one pretended what we were doing was art.”

Mack and Mabel’s conflicts mirror Hollywood’s early tug of war between action-dense comic shorts and longer, spectacle-rich love-story narratives. Michael Stewart’s book (here revised by Stewart’s sister Francine Pascal) and Jerry Herman’s lyrics and music (admirably served by Robert Scott’s musical direction) interweave the two. A smart idea, but the battle is uneven. Mack’s is always the dominant voice. The big, film-style production numbers, choreographed by Stephen Mear, are spectacular. Anna-Jane Casey scintillatingly leads the company in Tap Your Troubles Away, for instance. Widescreen filmic effects – a train snaking along vanishing-point rails under a starlit sky – are brilliantly achieved by mergers of Robert Jones’s set and Jon Driscoll’s projections. It’s the Mack-style comedy, though, that steals the show. Re-creations of silent-film scenes, as arranged by clowning company Spymonkey, culminating in the Keystone Cop number Hit ’Em on the Head, are the true beating heart of Mack’s story: romance never stands a chance.

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