“I’d be the first one to agree that I’m preoccupied with me”
Mack and Mabel reunites much of the creative team from last year’s very well received Parade at the Southwark Playhouse but sadly it also sees them go back into the same space of the Vault there. Despite its cavernous nature, it has become the default space for musicals at this London Bridge venue, although mystifyingly so as its first one – Company – was brilliantly played, unmiked, in the main house. To overcome the echoing acoustics of the Vault, shows tend to be heavily amplified and this has been something of a learning curve to say the least and for me undoes much of the point of going to see fringe musicals as it robs shows of the immediacy of hearing amazing voices up close and personal.
The show – book by Michael Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal – centres on the on-off relationship between Keystone Cops creator and silent film director Mack Sennett and the waitress he spotted, Mabel Normand, and turned into a star. Problem is, it isn’t a particularly gripping story, not even in its revised version, which tends towards a rather gloopy sentimentalisation, complete with annoying narration device, which never really addresses the fact that Mack is not someone you could imagine anyone ever giving the time of day to. Thom Southerland’s overlong production never really manages to overcome this deficiency in the story.
Where the show of course works beautifully is in Jerry Herman’s beautiful score. Norman Bowman sounds like a dream when singing but struggles to create something believable out of the characterisation given to him, and this is exacerbated by the excellent work from Laura Pitt-Pulford as Mabel, whose initial vivacity is corrupted by the film world and her vocal work is stellar in songs such as ‘Time Heals Everything’ and ‘Wherever He Ain’t’. The company work hard around them, in nicely-choreographed routines by Lee Proud including a great tap number. In the end though, I would just like the unplugged version.