Jerry Herman’s shows have always been sold as bigger and brasher than in fact they are. His two big hits – Mame and Hello Dolly – will have had something to do with that – their big-sell, feel-good, chorus-line numbers are what people have always gone out humming and the tender, poignant, beautiful ballads have tended to be undervalued by all but the most receptive. His two best shows – Mack and Mabel and Dear World (shortly to get an important London revival) – were greatly diminished by overblown productions and it’s only when you see them stripped down to the bare essentials of what really counts – i.e. their humanity – that you see them for what they really are: perceptive and personal.
In Thom Southerland’s terrific revival of Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse the energy comes from within, the dialogue crackles, the dance routines are physical and immediate and joyous, and the people matter. This great mismatch of a love affair between an unwittingly reluctant movie star and a man who cannot say how he feels until its too late only gets to you if you can feel and believe in their love and share in their frustration. Laura Pitt-Pulford’s wonderfully earthy Mabel Normand positively aches for the normality that Norman Bowman’s fanatical movie-obsessed Mack Sennett cannot give her. But she sees beneath his bullish, irascible exterior and so do we. That’s a huge tribute to both performances.
But everybody on this makeshift and chaotic soundstage is thoroughly engaged and from the moment the lights are lowered and the smell of mould and emptiness pervades the tunnel space beneath Southwark’s busy railway line we believe where we are – the decay signaling the end of an era is palpable. A lighter flickers in the darkness; working lights dimly illuminate the discarded props, costumes, and equipment. We are back to the future looking straight into the lens of the projector which now flickers with images of the Sennett era – and with minimal white and yellow light and the feeling of monochrome (Lighting Designer Howard Hudson) the show evokes all the shadow and contrast and wide-eyed wonder of the time when “Movies Were Movies”.
With a staging like this you see how the absence of a big budget and the potential handicap of a difficult space can concentrate the mind and free the imagination of a director like Southerland. A moving metal staircase can elevate our protagonists and thrillingly carry Mabel to “Wherever He Ain’t” (and, boy, does Laura Pitt-Pulford lay bare that number) and a chorus line of little more than half a dozen feisty performers armed with makeshift tap-boards can all but stop the show with a little invention (Choreographer Lee Proud) and sheer conviction. There wasn’t a single moment that we the audience weren’t buying and even the smashing 10-piece band suspended the disbelief that they weren’t twice that number.
I’ve always known that Mack and Mabel was a great score. I’m now convinced it’s a great show.