South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre – review

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved musical returns

Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary, Rob Houchen as Cable and the cast of 'South Pacific''
Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary, Rob Houchen as Cable and the cast of 'South Pacific''
© Johan Persson

Culture is a necessary cycle of revision and reinterpretation: as new ideas emerge and sands shift, the radical becomes the recognised, and the orthodox is deemed outdated. Through recent debates over shows like Hamilton or Jagged Little Pill, often held to be deeply progressive, it's apparent just how quickly critical and cultural conversations can move material out of "la mode".

With that in mind, in one sense it's remarkable that the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein has had such staying power. A lot of their strength lies not simply in the utterly captivating tunes, but there's also a deep well of powerful resonance in shows such as Oklahoma!, where sanitised mob-rule bubbles under the surface of a frontier community, or The Sound of Music, where fascism, left unchecked, evolves with a slick-haired veneer.

South Pacific, back when it was first staged in 1949 and based on James A Michener's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1947 book of a similar name, was about as radical as musicals could come in the post-War era: the dynamic duo didn't just add an overtly racist figure as a secondary character, she's slap bang in the middle of the action: Arkansas-born Nellie Forbush, who, if written differently could have been another Maria or Laurey, is repulsed by the concept of interracial sex. Almost at once, a tender, budding romance with French plantation owner and beau Emile de Becque is sapped of all its warmth by a pure sentiment of hatred.

Coming to it now, director Daniel Evans has an unenviable task of teasing out the colossal relevance of the piece while also confronting its shortcomings: namely the fact that the writers, largely a product of their time, marginalise the presence of the Polynesian community living around a group of soldiers during the WWII Pacific conflicts. Characters like "Bloody Mary", swinging around shrivelled heads while trying to marry off their largely mute daughters to white men, don't sit so readily with a modern-day audience.

It's the sort of challenge Bartlett Sher rose to with his award-winning revival of The King and I (Sher also directed a hit production of South Pacific back in the 00s) and, while not reaching those same dazzling heights, there is a concerted effort here to ameliorate some of the text's flaws.

Evans begins things with a daring flair: opening to a solo dance by Sera Maehara as local Polynesian youngster Tian, the stage is suddenly invaded from all sides (two soldiers even sailing down from above). The safe, tranquil space is occupied: irrecoverably altered by muggy military machismo.

The cast of South Pacific during the opening scene
The cast of South Pacific during the opening scene
© Johan Persson

For the most part though – this is a straight-laced revival that presents the sweeping subjects content as-is: there are some wonderful ensemble numbers (so refreshing given the Covid context – apparently the production has already taken around 27,000 tests) such as "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair", while "There Is Nothing Like a Dame", even though it's essentially a moment of "Male Gaze: The Musical", has a whimsical playfulness helped immensely by Joanna Ampil's on-stage charisma.

As mentioned, the role of Bloody Mary is always a tricky one – often little more than a caricature. Evans does well in big number "Happy Talk" – where Mary tries to coax Cable into marry her daughter – to make things much more melancholic – this isn't some bit of fun or romantic whimsy, but a mother carefully trying to secure a future for her daughter. Designer Peter McKintosh and choreographer and movement director Ann Yee do fantastic work in turn.

A refined assortment of performances are on offer: Gina Beck's sweet-natured Nellie, switching suddenly from bonny to bigot, is remarkably well-tempered. As mentioned, Ampil cuts through the flimsy material to find a more sophisticated twist on Bloody Mary, while Julian Ovenden is note-perfect as de Becque, floating across McKintosh's wonderfully innovative design in an earnest "Some Enchanted Evening". Rob Houchen's captures the tortured Cable in a sweaty, controlled turn – it's a shame his rendition of "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught", perhaps the show's most politically vocal number and unflinchingly staged against the backdrop of a US flag , has its climax interrupted by a scene change.

The show's resonance has only been amplified by the pandemic: reported hate crime directed at the UK's BESEA communities in the first quarter of 2020 had increased by 300 per cent on previous years. Rhetoric surrounding Covid has "carefully taught" a lot of communities to vocalise deep wells of hatred. Sunday night's social media events were another horrible reminder of how far racially-motivated hatred can sit in a society, even one claiming to support freedom.

Does Evans' production go as far as it could to step beyond the decades the material has had to gather dust? Perhaps not: but the cast of 31 delivers a visual treat that will be perfect for anyone deprived of a theatre feast.

The sensational production will return for a major touring run, opening in Manchester ahead of a season at Sadler's Wells in London – you can buy tickets below…