If in Singin’ in the Rain it was the sidekick who was interested in making ’em laugh, in Jerry Herman’s musical the art of amusing is firmly in the spotlight. This Hollywood story charts the fortunes of movie director Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone Studios, and his leading lady and sometime lover Mabel Normand, both of whom are seduced as much by the idea of making people laugh as they are by one another.
Despite declaring in his first musical number that “no one pretended that what we were doing was art”, Norman Bowman’s Mack Sennett has all the bullying intensity of the controlling auteur, albeit one concerned with custard pies and blundering cops. Following Sennett’s development of the early slapstick comedy, the plot is primarily concerned with his turbulent relationship with rags-to-riches film star Mabel, played with charm and brittle vulnerability by Laura Pitt-Pulford. As with all the best films, this is not a romance that is destined to end well.
No amount of glitter, however, can quite bring the dull shine of Michael Stewart’s underwhelming book up to the dazzling level of the rest of the production
Thom Southerland’s gorgeously staged production offers a smoky, sepia-tinted portrait of the twenties in the atmospheric surroundings of Southwark Playhouse’s dungeon-like Vault space, an intimacy that works well to showcase Herman’s score. Darting around Jason Denvir’s attractively cluttered set, the cast successfully summon the fevered energy of the movie studio, whether hurrying between takes or performing sequin-decked tap routines.
No amount of glitter, however, can quite bring the dull shine of Michael Stewart’s underwhelming book up to the dazzling level of the rest of the production. Stories about the movies often work better within their native environment of the screen, a problem that has haunted previous incarnations of Herman’s show and is not quite overcome by the best efforts of Southerland and his creative team. As Mack might say, “what do they know about making movies?”
*** (3 stars)
Runs until 25th August 2012