'Mack and Mabel' or 'Storming songs. Sexy chemistry. Silly, silly story!'
'Mack and Mabel'. Book by Michael Stewart. Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Southwark Playhouse, Wednesday 11th July 2012
How do you solve a problem like Mabel? With great difficulty, it seems. There's a good reason this musical only ran for 2 months after its Broadway premiere in 1974: the book is really bad. It's massively, Mabelly, flawed. Sure, Jerry Herman's score is strong and there's a vaguely compelling central love story between tough movie director Mack and his flighty new muse Mabel. But Michael Stewart's book is unforgivably brittle and the dark conclusion, although true to the real life origins of this story, ends the show on a clanging discord.
Disappointingly, it doesn't feel like director Thom Southerland has done all that much to overcome these structural issues. He might've made a few tweaks to the script but this isn't a radical overhalf. It still feels very inconsistent and clunky. The narrators spend a lot of time up ladders, pointing out the obvious. 'We're broke', cries out a narrator. A superfluous montage follows, pointing out just how very broke Mack's studio is.
It all feels pretty laboured - especially in the Southwark Vaults, normally home to much edgier, odder material. There's a dark heart beating beneath this story, which sees a young actress savaged by her own success, but it isn't exposed here. It's a shame because this crumbling, claustrophobic venue could've helped make 'Mack and Mabel' a much more twisted and compelling affair.
But Southerland shies away from the darker stuff and there are only a few gleaming shards of malice. Norman Bowman, as workaholic director Mack Sennet, does well not to romanticise his romantic lead: he really is a heartless bastard, clearly in need of sleep, food and a hearty slap around the face. His big 'love' song - 'I won't Send Roses' – is the best of the night; hard edged and horrible but somehow, in its weird idealism, oddly romantic too.
Yet moments of such sophistication are rare. For the most part, this is show is about tap dancing, half naked ladies and giddy, slapstick comedy. It comes alive only at it's silliest – and loudest. The same goes for most of the songs. Laura Pitt-Pulford, as Mabel, sure can belt out a number but it would've been nice to see a bit more vulnerability laced into her songs. It's hardly her fault. It's pretty tough to play vulnerable when you're miked up to the high heavens. Pitt-Pulford on her own is very loud indeed. The whole chorus together is frankly terrifying. Bruising rather than powerful stuff.