South Pacific, Sadler's Wells, 2022
Photo by Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Musicals
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‘South Pacific’ review

4 out of 5 stars

Smart revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s WW2-set jewel


Time Out says

The last two Rodgers & Hammerstein revivals to hit London were ‘Oklahoma!’ at the Young Vic and ‘Carousel’ at the Open Air Theatre, two boldly revisionist takes that radically reworked and critiqued the source material. Before that, a chintzy Lincoln Center revival of ‘The King and I’ that came over in 2018 was an object lesson in how these towering classics absolutely can date. But does the musical theatre legends’ work need to be revised to work in the modern world?

To be honest, it probably varies from show to show. But Daniel Evans’s Chichester Festival Theatre revival of ‘South Pacific’ is affirmation that you don’t actually have to irreverently deconstruct Rodgers & Hammerstein for them to feel relevant.

Rather than blowtorch ‘South Pacific’, Evans has sent it to bootcamp - this is a trim, lean version of the World War Two-set 1949 classic that deliberately forgoes fussy spectacle in favour of corrugated iron backdrops and a comparatively uncluttered, unfussy staging that lets the sumptuous score and big emotions flow free. It never feels like it’s critiquing the source material. But it’s a well-judged take on a musical that is boldly against racial prejudice (but guilty of mild orientalism), that’s a serious story about war (with a lot of comedy), that takres a very hard look at its leading lady (but not the men so much).

Let’s be clear: the score is staggering, and that’s why ‘South Pacific’ still gets staged. It’s home to an almost indecent number of masterpieces, from the sassy proto-pop of ‘Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ to the swooning romance of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ to the excoriating ‘You’ve Got to Be Taught’ which is – the odd crass rhyme aside – a still blistering anti-racism song.

Distilled from James A Michener’s 1947 short story collection ‘Tales of the South Pacific’, it’s a smartly structured show, skipping preamble to dive headlong into the first flushes of romance between ditsy US Ensign Nellie Fotrbush (Gina Beck) and silver fox French planter Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden). Sure, Emile has some creepy lines about how he just knew a young woman was the answer to his loneliness, but ee iz vory ’andsome and vory Fronch and you just kind of gloss over it. And ultimately Beck‘s vivacious ditsiness as Nellie and Ovenden’s twinkly-eyes smouldering is a good combination on stage – you feel they’re probably going to bring out the best in each other. 

Of course, complications are expected, and it seems at first that the impediment to their romance will be the US forces tapping Emile for a dangerous reconnaissance mission. It’s the show’s masterstroke that the problem is Nellie’s hitherto unflagged racism: she discovers Emile has two mixed-race children by his late Polynesian first wife and literally cannot contain her disgust. You’d probably deal with the topic differently if the musical was made today: it’s sad that Nellie holds such prejudices, rather than condemnatory. But it still feels decades ahead of its time.

Ultimately ‘South Pacific’ is a very pleasurable musical that also makes some serious points very well. It’s not a big lecture and Evans doesn’t direct it as such. Douggie McMeekin is good fun as wheeler-dealing sailor Luthor Billis, and David Birrell gets a good few chuckles as the stick-up-the-ass Captain George Brackett. ‘South Pacific’ is meant to be fun, and it is here. But the sober stuff is really allowed to breathe in a well-judged production that plays this musical’s many, often seemingly contradictory strengths.


£15-£100. Runs 2hr 50min
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