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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Chichester Festival Theatre


  Jack Edwards and the Keystone Cops/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

It’s one of the classiest musical theatre producing houses in the country, with a string of recent West End hit transfers to its name, so if anyone could solve the tuneful conundrum that is Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel (1974), it’s Chichester Festival Theatre. Despite a valiant effort from director Jonathan Church, Chichester doesn’t manage the Herculean task of making the first titular character as appealing as the second, and once again we’re left wondering why silent film star Mabel Normand put up with frantic maverick Mack Sennett for as long as she did.
The downside, then, is romantic imbalance, even though novelist Francine Pascal has effected some subtle tweaks on the book by her late brother Michael Stewart. But let’s not drift glumly for too long in the murky waters of gender politics, for there is much to admire in this elegant production that sweeps us stylishly around the early days of motion pictures.
It’s an area with which Church – Chichester’s outstanding artistic director who was recently recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his services to this theatre – is already acquainted, having previously made such a success of that other musical adventure into silent films, Singin’ in the Rain. There’s some delightful use of video projections to immerse us in the hectic, hard-work world of "two-reelers" and Herman’s lovely songs once again take flight under the musical direction of Robert Scott.
Michael Ball makes that pioneering film director Mack Sennett as driven as they come. No one and nothing, least of all a little trifle such as true love, will get in the way of his desire to make movies, and hundreds of them at that. Ball’s magnificent voice does full justice to that haunting statement of anti-romantic intent, "I Won’t Send Roses." How we long for Mabel to ask, "Why not?" There is no getting around the fact, though, that Ball is rather too old for this Mabel.
As Normand, American actress Rebecca LaChance is a real find, with a playful and spirited temperament reluctantly giving way to increasing world-weariness as Mack breaks his promises once too often. Mabel, who stumbles by chance onto one of Mack’s movie sets in her job as a delicatessen delivery girl, bubbles with fresh-faced enthusiasm at the start, and LaChance makes the toe-tapping "Look What Happened to Mabel" a pleasingly wide-eyed acceptance of her new-found fame. A canny producer would sign LaChance straight up for Annie Get Your Gun. Mabel’s descent into drug addiction remains a problem, cropping up too late in the narrative and staying frustratingly under-explored.
Given that Sennett pioneered the Keystone Cops and the Bathing Belles, the scope that this offers a choreographer is almost limitless, and Stephen Mear has created some enjoyably exuberant routines. There’s a lovely extended cops sequences, all bashes over the head with truncheons and dazed staggering, and Anna-Jane Casey and the company tap up a storm in "Tap Your Troubles Away." If only Mabel’s problems could be dismissed so quickly and efficiently.


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