I have to be honest and admit that musical theatre, at least the smash-hit West End kind, is not usually my cup of tea. I rarely see a show advertised on the side of a bus with a smiling sunshine couple on it and think “Wow, that looks great. I really have to go and see that!” So, when I found myself attending a revival of the musical Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The Southwark Playhouse’s Vault is a wonderful setting that caught my imagination as soon as I sat down. In the underground railway tunnel, complete with damp, musty air, dark corners and dim lighting that smacked of Prohibition parties, the atmosphere was one of intrigued excitement. The set was endearingly makeshift, reminding me of an attic full of forgotten treasures and consisting of a costume rail along the back wall, rickety shelves, a shabby-looking piano and freestanding old-fashioned lighting units.
As the overture of Mack and Mabel began to reverberate around the Vault, I looked in vain for the band that were performing the soundtrack. The only indication that a live band were playing was the black and white image of the Musical Director on a TV as he conducted them. Not only did the MD become quite distracting but his screen was the only point of light onstage during the five-minute musical introduction that seemed to last a lifetime. I found myself staring dumbly at this screen as I listened to the band boom out through the sound system. I couldn’t help thinking that had there been more space, the production would have benefitted from the electricity that comes with having an orchestra playing onstage.
As the opening scene begins, the audience is transported to the Movie Studios of Mack Sennett, a silent film director who cuts a slick silhouette in a navy mac and trilby, with a slim cigarette clamped between his lips. It is 1938 and Mack (Norman Bowman) has returned to his studio as a group of actors are filming a “talkie”. He begins to reminisce about the days of silent films and as he sinks into his memories, the story of his first meeting with Mabel, who would later become a major movie star, starts to unfold. Bowman captures the irritable and unreasonable Mack as he bellows at Mabel (Laura Pitt-Pulford) without the melodrama so often associated with musical theatre. Indeed, the couple’s incompatibility fuels their ill-fated romantic entanglement and is hard to resist.
Despite a slow start, Mack and Mabel quickly gained pace as the bustling chorus scenes drove the action forward, bringing the movie set to life and encapsulating the infectious energy of the industry. Towards the end of the first act, the musical number ‘Hundreds of Girls’ saw the company of dancers lighting up the dark Vault in colourful swimwear as though they had dived straight from a seaside postcard. However, it was the incredible precision and impressive pace of ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ that made me wish I could dance, as all good musicals should.
After spending two hours in a converted railway tunnel watching Mack and Mabel from the front row, inches away from the performers, I found myself rekindling the old flame for musical theatre that was extinguished sometime in my early teenage years. I could understand director Thom Southerland’s eagerness to revive this little-known musical away from the safety and commercialism of the West End. Perhaps if Southerland can prove the necessity to free the musical from the constraint of the proscenium arch stage, then this popular theatre form will reach a wider, more diverse audience and gain the new lease of life that it deserves.
Mack and Mabel will be running at the Southwark Playhouse from 5 July-25 August. For more information visit their website.
Image credit: Annabel Vere