After last summer's award-winning Southwark Playhouse production of Alfred Uhry's 'Parade', director Thom Southerland's decision to follow it up with 'Mack & Mabel' is a brave one. Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's 1974 musical about the silent-movie director Mack Sennett and his tempestuous affair with his star, Mabel Normand, has had an equally troubled performance history – its original production closed early, and never rivalled Herman's mega-hit 'Hello Dolly!'.
In his programme notes, Southerland admits that many people in the industry tried to warn him off the show – so full credit to him for standing firm. This heavily revised version is superb – and, with the runaway success of 'The Artist' piquing audiences' interest in the silent-movie era, it feels nicely of the moment.
The Playhouse's cavernous Vault venue is the ideal backdrop for a show set among back-lot costume-rails and clicking cameras. As Sennett, Norman Bowman hits just the right notes, alternating belligerence with tenderness; and Laura Pitt-Pulford is an appealing Mabel, with all the tomboyish swagger of a Brooklyn deli waitress turned overnight movie star.
Lee Proud's choreography is Broadway-worthy – at the performance I saw, the show's two intricate set-pieces brought whoops from the stalls. And, despite irksome technical difficulties that will be presumably ironed out during the run, the cast and band perform Herman's lavish score with infectious energy and conviction.
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If you love theatre then you have to go and see Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse - I went on Saturday for the first time going again in August. It will blow you away, the cast, music, dancing, production are all totally fantastic. This is a show that should not be missed!...