MACK AND MABEL, Chichester Festival Theatre

GUEST REVIEWER LUKE JONES FINDS PLENTY OF TALENT BUT LITTLE REWARD IN CHICHESTER

This is a tale of romance and of the lure of cinema: tricky on the stage. Mack Sennet, a clownish film director, is losing his beloved star, Mabel Normand, to the dreaded, meatier features. He leaves the emotion and the drama to the other directors, he says: D.W. Griffiths and the like. The issue is that, as Sennet would have wanted, Mack and Mabel is all performance and little gut. Extremely talented people are behind this production, but the material they chose does them little favours.

The musical elements are near perfection. Jerry Herman’s score is a gently bluesy and aggressively memorable delight. But Michael Stewart’s book has the charm of a self-assessment tax return.

Despite this, Jonathan Church has brought a large cast and this shaky material into something moderate, occasionally good. Tight choreography, thumping band, a seductively jazzy score and some of the clearest and accomplished vocal performances out there. It’s just after every triumph of a number, it is a lazy book which picks up where it left off.

As Mack and Mabel, Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance are on fine form; Ball with his boomy voice, imposing frame, but emotional delicacy, LaChance with her outstanding vocals, innocent eyes but later ambitious swag. But the text gives them nothing meaty to play with. At best, it’s the serious bits of Panto. The romance is gently introduced and quickly forgotten, the dialogue is trite, incredibly few jokes land and the rosy adoration for ‘the mooovies’ never really gets beyond people sighing, “Oh, has everything got to do with the movies?”

But despite being gutted of a vital organ, the show stands. Even though no one with any lines can explain the central fascination with cinema, Robert Jones’ set has the sweaty sheen of creative industry with cranes, cameras and projections wheeling around. This workmanlike aesthetic is relieved when the band strike up, with the glitzy glamour daubed on by the rather brilliant lighting of Howard Harrison. The stage is set alight, led from the front by the absolute machine that is Anna-James Casey. Each ensemble piece has her at the heart – a slice of vocal and physical perfection.

This poor cast then. Alive with the heft of talent in the room, with the piece itself gentle sapping it away from them. They sweat terrific number after terrific number but it’s never cemented emotionally by the threadbare story.

– LUKE JONES

3 mice 3 Meece Rating

UNTIL 5th September at Chichester Festival Theatre; Box office: 01243 781312

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