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A CurtainUp London Review
South Pacific

By by Lizzie Loveridge

South Pacific
wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting, the timeless, repetitive waiting.
---James A Michener in Tales of the South Pacific 1946
A few years ago I saw a touring production of South Pacific. It was a glorious, sumptuous musical but one thing grated. The plot hinged on Nellie Forbush giving up the love of her life, Emile de Becque, because the Frenchman had married a local woman and had two mixed race, Eurasian children. The idea today seems preposterous but in 1948 it presumably reflected entrenched attitudes towards race. In this new production, instead of glossing over the race issue, Trevor Nunn has made it central. He mercilessly exposes Nellie Forbush (Lauren Kennedy) as a redneck racist. Nunn is equally uncompromising in how he deals with the other love story of the musical, the relationship between Princeton educated Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Edward Baker-Duly) and Liat (Elaine Tan) the daughter of island trader and wheeler dealer Bloody Mary (Sheila Francisco). we are left in no doubt that Bloody Mary is peddling sex as well as souvenirs but that she would pay for her daughter's social advancement if she could get Cable to marry Liat.

The first thing that will strike you about the National's production is the ordinariness of the casting, no beauties apart from Nellie and no hunks in the ranks of the American sailors and marines. This unHollywoodly approach gives a new grittier way of looking at South Pacific with the emphasis on the darkness of the themes contrasting with the glorious tunes.

The show opens using a curved screen like an Imax theatre but showing archive black and white movie reels from the 1940s of real servicemen in the Pacific. The screen makes way to reveal a muted tropical paradise with palm trees and a full size jeep, Bloody Mary is setting up her stall and the men confidently get straight into their lust and longing song, "There is Nothing Like a Dame" They hug bed rolls and tree trunks in an attempt to simulate the embrace of a woman. A glorious bass sings the last line alone, a low rumbling, "there is absolutely nothing like the frame of a dame".

Of the principals, American Lauren Kennedy brims with endless energy and enthusiasm as the irrepressible Nellie. She is almost exhausting to watch but she has a fine voice . There were moments when it seems as if this Nellie might be sending herself up, especially in the "cock eyed optimist" number.

Philip Quast as Emile de Becque looks like he's been dining on good French food and has great sexual appeal and a superb baritone voice although, together, I didn't think he and Nellie altogether convinced as a couple. Quast starts "Some Enchanted Evening" very naturally and builds it into the great love song that it is. His acting talent shows - he has had non singing roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company - and his French accent is authentic.

I liked Edward Baker-Duly's tall, blond, rich boy Lt Cable with his complex characterisation and fine tenor voice. The song "You have to be carefully taught" takes on an especial resonance in this production. " You have to be taught /Before it's too late./ Before you are six or seven or eight/ to hate all the people your relatives hate. /You have to be carefully taught."

I was a little disappointed by Bloody Mary. Her singing is fine but whoever allowed her to show perfect capped white teeth when there are so many references in the text to her rusty and missing teeth? Luther Billis Seabee (Nick Holder) is less the comedian, but a more pathetic figure with his unrequited feelings for Nellie. The de Becque children are delightful in their "Dites moi" number. The same is true of the deliberately mismatched female chorus line as the nurses put on a decidedly and appropriately amateur show.

The designers have created a lovely terrace with rattan furniture for the de Becque hillside plantation. The Bali Hai scenes are lit with the usual Technicolor but this production is more about ideas than beautiful scenery and lighting - for example, the sage green towels used in the choreography by the women in Nellie's memorable "I'm going to wash that man right out of my hair" session. There are so many reprises so that, in case you didn't know all the great tunes beforehand, you certainly will by the end of this performance. This brings it in at over the three hours mark. which, as a colleague mentioned to me, makes for a e first half that is only ten minutes short of the whole 1948 Broadway production.

In the finale, as Emile, returning from the mission, creeps up on the happy domestic scene of Nellie playing mother to his children, Trevor Nunn finally allows his production to get sentimental and have the audience get out the Kleenex.

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, adapted from James A Michener's Tales of the South Pacific
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Philip Quast and Lauren Kennedy
With: Edward Baker- Duly, Nick Holder, Sheila Francisco, Elaine Tan, Phong Truong, Richard Youman, Sarah Ingram, Melanie Min Yin Hah/Natasha Lee/Caresse Mingo/Malissa Tang, Wai Chun Cheung/Samuel Manisty/Kevin Tan/Monty Tang, John Shrapnel, Stuart Milligan, Joe Young, Christopher Holt, Richard Pettyfer, Ian McLarnon, Paul Hawkyard, David Stodhard, Bramwell Donaghey, Mark Hilton, Thomas Aaron, James Barron, Tam Mutu, Neal Wright, Sasha Oakley, Lorraine Chappell, Cathy Cogle, Nicola Filshie, Sarah Leatherbarrow, Jean McGlynn, Sarah Manton, Renée Montemayor, Golda Rosheuvel, Rebecca Vere, Sarah Bayliss, Zehra Naqvi, Daniel Stockton, Timothy Walton
Musical Staging: Matthew Bourne
Designer: John Napier
Costume Design: Elise Napier
Lighting Design: David Hersey
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Original Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Musical Supervisor: David White
Musical Director: Stephen Brookner
Barclays Olivier Theatre Season
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to April 27th 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 28th December 2001 perfrmabce at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1
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