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A CurtainUp London London Review
Mack and Mabel

What is an artist for if he can't change life?
---- Mack
Mack and Mabel
David Soul as Mack Sennett
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Jerry Herman's 1974 Mack and Mabel is described as one of the best Broadway scores which never became a hit musical. It now has the air of an undiscovered masterpiece by the writer of La Cage Aux Folles, Mame and Hello, Dolly!. However, in spite of some great music, there are definable reasons why this musical failed as a show. It would take a very special production to overcome these reasons. John Doyle, whose Sweeney Todd impressed Broadway last year, directs this Mack and Mabel with energy and feeling, but does not wholly manage to surmount its inherent problems.

Mack and Mabel follows the real life story of movie director Mack Sennett, the creator of Keystone Cops (and, incidentally, the famous Hollywood sign) and Mabel Normand, whose successful career became increasingly plagued by addictions and scandal. Against a background of farcical film cops, impoverished movie-making and the glitz of a still young Hollywood, Mack's harshly unsentimental love for Mabel and Mabel's gradual but irreversible decline are portrayed.

Like Doyle's Sweeney Todd, the cast stay onstage for almost the entire evening and, whilst acting, singing and dancing, they play their own instruments. This is an inventive, lively style full of spirit. However, there are several drawbacks, such as the loss of intimacy during love songs between Mack and Mabel, actors in character inexplicably holding a musical instrument, or the distracting choreography whereby the cast pretend to play their instruments.

I cannot also help but feel that the original production in the Watermill Theatre, Newbury has lost some of its impact in the transfer to the Criterion. It still has the feel of a pared-down, low-budget yet resourceful production which worked so well in the tiny but unconventional Watermill theatre. On this larger stage, parts could have been portrayed with more scenic enrichment. For example, when a film scene which they are recording is set in Ancient Rome, just one toga would have added some atmosphere of the cinematic set. Again, when Mabel discovers Mack in the arms of another actress, this would have been far clearer and more poignant if the narration was accompanied by an onstage enactment.

In terms of performances, Janie Dee is an endearing Mabel, played with ingenuous charm and helpless pathos as she self-destructs. David Soul is well-suited to the part of the tough and cynical Mack, only able to express love for movies rather than people. Also notable was Tomm Coles as Frank, who acted and played the saxophone with flair.

The music is very good, jauntily memorable and familiar to much of the UK after British world champions Torvill and Dean famously skated to it. However, the music's sprightly appeal constitutes both its strength and weakness, and it is jarringly incompatible with the gritty, biographical material it is meant to portray. In spite of this production's good points, there remains a glaring inconsistency between "musical comedy theatre" and the true life tragedy of drug abuse, frustrated love, scandal, broken careers and premature death.

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart with revisions by Francine Pascal
Directed by John Doyle

Starring: David Soul, Janie Dee
With: Richard Brightiff, Tomm Coles, Robert Cousins, Michelle Long, Robin Pirongs, Jon Trenchard, Simon Tuck, Sarah Whittuck, Matthew Woodyatt
Design: Mark Bailey
Lighting: Richard G Jones
Sound: Gary Dixon
Arrangements and Musical Supervisor: Sarah Travis
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 2313
Booking to 22nd July 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 11th April 2006 performance at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
Musical Numbers
Act One

Movies Were Movies
Look What Happened to Mabel
Big Time
I Won't Send Roses
I Wanna Make the World Laugh
Wherever He Ain't
Hundreds of Girls
Act Two

When Mabel Comes In the Room
My Heart Leaps Up
Time Heals Everything
Tap your Troubles Away
I Promise You a Happy Ending
London Theatre Walks

Peter Ackroyd's  History of London: The Biography

London Sketchbook

tales from shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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