Mini-review – Mack and Mabel – Southwark Playhouse


I wasn’t going to go to the Southwark Playhouse’s big summer musical as I had never heard of it, but a few of my Twitter friends chided me and said I was missing out on something that was sure to please me. And, actually, they were right: a musical by the team that created Hello, Dolly! with a theme of silent movies – or, rather, set in the silent movie era and based on the lives of Max Sennet and his star Mabel Normand – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. It’s actually a really good show to be reviving this year, what with the success of both Hugo and The Artist – and as a true-blue fan of the silent movies, it was practically custom-made for me. (And I had seen Mack Sennet’s name many times on the credits of silents, but I’m actually not particularly good with the history of this era, so I walked in to it having very few expectations.)

There were several thrills for me in this production. First, the songs are, as my friends promised, lush and dense, full of characterization and image, with melodies memorable for more than the few minutes that they are sung. Second, the leading lady, Laura Pitt-Pulford, has the kind of charisma that makes it hard for you to tear your eyes (or ears) away from her. Is she on stage? Might she sing again? I’m sorry, is Mack trying to have a moment? His stiffness gave him no chance of standing out against her bright star. Ah, lordy, how could this woman possibly be carrying the main role in a show I got to see for only fifteen pounds!

Third, the production values of this show utterly surpassed anything I’ve come to expect from the fringe theater. Aside from the investment in costumes, they’d also put some serious money into choreography and *swoon* served up a tap dancing number (“Hundreds of Girls”) that had me calculating the best date for a return visit before the show had even finished. And then the miracle of Mabel swirling around the stage singing from atop of an iron cherry picker – wow, Jesus, I was completely flattened. WHAT WAS GOING ON HERE? I was at some little cheap show in a dirty little theater (gah, the dust kicked up by the tap dancing was vile!) and it was BLOWING ME AWAY.

And then, the end, your heart breaks, it’s all a bunch of make believe (Hollywood make believe, only through the eyes of the Great White Way) but it makes you feel just right, sad and nostalgic about everything that has been lost, about everyone that’s ruined a relationship because they wanted to make some kind of a point rather than actually listening (and acting on) what their heart said. And that message held true to me as if it had come across from a thousand years, not just the forty since it was written or the hundred since it was (in its imagined original state) new. Two lovers, both such strong personalities, both destroyed by their own egos, both suffering because they couldn’t bend enough to love each other a little more. Ah, god, could you want anything more more from a beautiful little show stuffed into a tiny little space with all of its heart just bursting out all over the place? It was Mabel Normand all over. And it was great. A fantastic way to spend a steamy summer night, and a fantastic bargain to boot.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 2nd, 2012. Mack and Mabel continues at the Southwark Playhouse until August 25th.)

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