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Mack & Mabel, Chichester Festival Theatre, review: 'has real West End potential'

~ The Telegraph by Dominic Cavendish - 22/07/15 ~


It’s easy to develop spoilt brat syndrome at Chichester. There were times during Jonathan Church’s lavish revival of Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical about the on-off romance between the silent-movie mogul Mack Sennett and the actress Mabel Normand, when I caught myself grumbling: this is all quite fun, but isn’t it too frothy and insubstantial? And, sure, with Michael Ball cutting a dash and making a splash as Mack, this production might just bring the show to the West End for the first time in almost 10 years, but it doesn’t match the dizzy heights of the theatre’s recent account of Gypsy, which has made a sensational transfer to the Savoy.


That’s the curse of success; you’re judged against your triumphs. Yet only 10 years ago, before Church took over, this hallowed venue was in the doldrums. Now he is about to depart, it has become the norm to expect the best.


Obviously, you can’t wholly turn a blind eye to the evening’s deficiencies. Herman himself (still going at 84) worried about the lovability – or lack of it – of his hero and heroine: Sennett is so obsessed with making his next picture, and dime, that he winds up losing the dame, whom he treats as arrogantly as Henry Higgins does Eliza Doolittle, while Normand’s increasing craving for recognition and drugs also somewhat tarnishes her.


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Around them (ploddy book by Michael Stewart, only partly solved by Francine Pascal’s revisions) whirl characters so paper-thin they barely stand up without the sustaining frenzy of song-and-dance routines. Often the ensemble, licked into shape by choreographer Stephen Mear, seem to be hoofing and goofing like it was going out of fashion. This is most madly so during a homage to the Keystone Cops (who Sennett made famous, as he did Charlie Chaplin) involving much truncheon-twirling mayhem.


Yet I think that this rough-and-ready quality is part of the show’s strange appeal and chimes with Sennett’s slapdash-prone, slapstick-rich output. Herman looks back with rose-tinted nostalgia at the hustling innocence of the early film industry while fondly drawing on the showbiz formulae of old Broadway. Sennett had an eye for what the public wanted over what superior taste preferred. Herman follows suit: there’s even a show-stopping tap-dance number in praise of, erm, the joy of tap-dancing; that’s gloriously led here by Anna-Jane Casey, twinkling away like a night-sky, the chorus-line around her in kinky bell-hop gear sporting identical Louise Brooks bobs. Factual value? Almost nil. Entertainment value: huge.


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One should cherish the warmth of spirit then, reflected in Herman’s characteristically lush score and charming lyrics. The opening number “Movies Were Movies” is an infectious, pastiche-drenched paean to the glory days of the silver screen – Ball’s broke but unbeaten Mack recapturing a state of childish glee as he progresses from tentative wistful patter, accompanied by tinkling piano, to leather-lunged defiance high up on a moving dolly – propelling us by force of personality back to 1911.


In a way, this is a timeless cautionary tale about mixing business with pleasure, and letting love in. Mack’s anti-romantic ballad “I Won’t Send Roses” neatly sums up male inadequacies: “I won’t send roses/ Or hold the door/ I won’t remember/ Which dress you wore”. His wounded beloved later gets a solo song, “Time Heals Everything”, that has a similar surface breeze, the same inner tempest. As Mabel Rebecca LaChance is a beautiful fit for an accidental starlet who instinctively knows how to widen her eyes in exaggerated terror at moustachioed villains but refuses to play the part of obliging wall-flower in real-life. Brought over from the States, she feels like a find in her own right.

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