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A CurtainUp London Review
Mack and Mabel
by Sebastian King
The story of Mabel Normand (Laura Pitt-Pulford), whose ascent from New York waitress to comic star of silent movies, having been taken under the wing of legendary director Mack Sennett (Norman Bowman), is the stuff of Hollywood legend. Her complex romantic entanglement with Mack, along with his refusal to alter his once-successful film-making formula, led to Mabel’s increasing dependency on alcohol and drugs, and she died from tuberculosis at the age of 37. Herman and book writer Michael Stewart play fast-and-loose with the facts, but their resulting show is at its heart a tragic love story and love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Thanks to Jason Denvir’s design and Howard Hudson’s creative lighting, Southwark Playhouse’s Vault has been converted into a believable and atmospheric Hollywood film studio. Sound Designer Andrew Johnson has also solved the sound balance issues that have hindered productions in this space previously, by housing the ten-piece band off-stage. It’s a shame not to see them in action, but it’s a small price to pay for West End quality sound balance and clarity.
In fact there is nothing about this production that is not ‘West End quality’. The cast sing, dance and act flawlessly, with standout supporting performances from the beautifully-voiced Stuart Matthew Price as Frank, and Jessica Martin as Lottie Ames. Martin, who took over from Caroline O’ Connor as Mabel in the show’s original West End production leads the stonking Act II tap-routine ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’. As the dictatorial Mack, Norman Bowman finds shades of humanity and a certain amount of dashing charm, his warm baritone soaring through the anti- love song ‘I Won’t Send Roses’, and final ballad ‘Happy Ending’.
Gifted with the best songs, it is Laura Pitt-Pulford as the feisty but flawed Mabel who really shines. Her punchy opening number ‘Look What Happened to Mabel’ is delivered with a mischievous spark whilst she ends Act 1 with grim determination to be ‘Wherever He Ain’t’, belting out the defiant number from the top of a staircase-on-wheels. The staircase makes another appearance as she performs one of the best written torch songs of all time ‘Time Heals Everything’ with a heart-breaking desperation.
In the programme notes, Southerland writes that this production is something of a labour of love, and this comes across in his staging, which is full of creativity and subtlety. I particularly enjoyed the film sequences imaginatively choreographed by Lee Proud: when Mack is directing, he and the camera are always centre stage, with the actors confined to the corners, but when Frank takes over as director, he places the actors centre stage and moves downstage. It’s a nice touch, which seems to reflect Southerland’s own intention to present a show that he loves in the best possible light. With this pitch-perfect production, there is no doubt that he has most definitely succeeded.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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