Review: Mame (Hope Mill Theatre)

The musical is professionally revived for the first time in half a century

© Pamela Raith

Most musicals become such a sensation that they enjoy perpetual tours and revivals which secure longevity. Mame, however, hasn't seen a professional production for 50 years. Now it returns with lavish vigour, charged with the star-power of Tracie Bennett as Auntie Mame, which leaves you wondering how it could have disappeared for so long.

Mame's life of decadence and hedonism in 1920s New York is upended by the sudden arrival of her nephew, Patrick. After her initial reluctance to become a maternal figure for the boy, they soon form a strong bond that is tested as they age, find romantic partners and Patrick becomes more independent.

The plot may be relatively simplistic, but Tracie Bennett's incarnation of Mame is richly flamboyant. Her face seems to radiate Tim Mitchell's warm lighting with her dazzling eyes, while she thrusts her arms out as though sending out fireworks, resolutely commanding the stage. Her facial expressions move seamlessly between joyous smiles to revulsion by contorting her lips with remarkable comic timing. She contrasts this gregarious growling tiger against the affection she feels for Patrick, clasping her hands in front of her face as though overcome with adoration. Equally, she utilises her petite stature to portray the bumbling fish-out-of-water struggling to find a stable career and resist lecherous men.

Her relationship with her nephew, Patrick, is nicely observed. Played on press night by Lochlan White, he confidently stands tall while tilting his head down slightly to look at his aunt with humble admiration. Not only does this convince us of their life-long friendship, but it also conveys the impressionability which sees him faithfully repeating Mame's lines as sharp as her fringe: rejecting olives from a martini because they "take up so much room in such a little glass".

There are some garish moments. A sequence involving the song "We Need a Little Christmas" leads to the unveiling of a Christmas tree and several boxes of decorations cavorted around the stage. Other aspects, meanwhile, don't sit particularly well when they're brought into the 21st century. Mame's secretary, Agnes, is suddenly coerced into the superficial artifice of 'beauty' by Mame and her friend Vera, when they deem her too drab and encourage her to become more sexualised and promiscuous on the basis of their mantra "live, live, live". It's also difficult to meet the play's demands that you feel pity for Mame when she cries and wails at the loss of her inordinate fortune, and then requires you to invest in her attempt to regain it.

There are no questions, however, about the skill behind the delivery of the musical numbers and impressive group choreography which fills the Hope Mill Theatre's modest space. It's a joyous evening and a treat to witness Tracie Bennett's irrepressible fervour, emphatically justifying a 50-year wait.