With music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly, Mame, La Cage Aux Folles) and book by Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly, Barnum, 42nd Street) the original 1974 Broadway production starred Bernadette Peters as silent movie star Mabel Normand, the muse of Hollywood director Mack Sennett in the early part of the 20th century. This production features a book updated by Francine Pascal in 2006.
Returning to his Brooklyn film studio hours before it is to be sold in the 1930’s, Norman Bowman as Mack reminisces about how things have changed since his heyday. He recalls his first meeting with the great love of his life, Mabel. Flashing back to 1910 Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Mabel, a sandwich girl delivering on-set, gets into a fight with Jessica Martin’s Lottie, an actress who hasn’t got enough money to pay for her lunch. Impressed with her feistiness, Mack offers Mabel a role in his next film and we follow their stormy personal and professional relationship over the next twenty years, as both achieve great success, he with the Bathing Beauties and Keystone Cops, she with Sennett and later with other directors. He is controlling and manipulative with an eye for the ladies and she, understandably, finds comfort elsewhere before misfortune engineers a reunion worthy of La Traviata.
Well where do I start? Let’s get the negatives out the way, the lighting is a little gloomy, which may have something to do with the space (a dank railway arch) and some missed cues leave the actors faces in shadow. There are also a few loud microphone “clunks” coming from the band, but that’s it and as this is still a preview, I’m sure these blips will be ironed out by opening night because apart from that it is abso-bloody-lutely magnificent.
Norman Bowman and Laura Pitt-Pulford are sensational in what are intrinsically unlikeable leading roles, he a control freak she a needy malcontent. By turns tender and tough and attacking Herman’s brassy tuneful score with confident vocals, I was a blubbering wreck by the end of the first act’s statement of intent, the classic I Won’t Send Roses. Bowman’s hard hearted Mack eventually warms in the face of Pitt-Pulford’s initially unconfident Mabel who finally blooms when she realises her own self-worth and the value of her natural talent.
Add to this mix, Jessica Martin’s terrific movie star in waiting Lottie, Stuart Matthew Price's superb portrayal of Mack’s lackey and screenwriter Frank, Steven Serlin’s fabulous peace-making producer Kessell and a spectacular ensemble, full of verve and star wattage that belies the murky lighting. Three incredible set pieces, one for each of Sennett’s biggest triumphs away from Mabel, Bathing Beauties & Keystone Cops, and a tremendous Jessica Martin as Lottie leading a sparkling Tap Your Troubles Away, are beautifully staged and choreographed with flair and wit by Lee Proud.
The 11 piece band, with strings, woodwind and brass must be one of the largest ever assembled for a fringe production and make the most glorious noise imaginable (clunks excepted).
Director Thom Sutherland has created a tight fast paced production that barely pauses for breath, there are even hardly any breaks for much warranted applause. It looks and sounds like an Olympics proof hit and by my reckoning that makes three 5 star productions in SE1.
Genius is so rife on the fringe in Southwark, it must be contagious.