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Mack & Mabel

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Good songs, shame about the show. It’s the same old story with this silent movie musical by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, which starts brightly but collapses in maudlin sentimentality after one last desperate tap dance in the sinking film studio.

Thom Southerland’s revival is sunk anyway by its technical deficiencies: an invisible live band, piped in from elsewhere in the building, and hideous, eardrum-assaulting over-microphoning (the losing grace in Parade here, too), create an alienating effect that is nowhere near Brechtian.

Most of the fast lyrics – Mabel in her deli days is “the girl with the pickles who hustles for nickels” – are swallowed, the slow ones over-sold. And Lee Proud’s choreography for “Hundreds of Girls” and the Keystone Cops sequence is so desperately energetic you feel in dire need of a good hot bath and rub down afterwards.

Handsome, chisel-featured Norman Bowman as a dictatorial Mack Sennett, resisting the winds of change in his industry, and Laura Pitt-Pulford, all sobs and wobbly warmth as his two-reeler star Mabel Normand, act their socks off, but there’s not much chemistry going on between them. And anyway, socks are always better left on. Best musical moment is “When Mabel Comes in the Room,” a really lovely, lilting melody that reminds you how, with Herman’s Dolly Levi, you also felt the room swaying; and it’s insinuatingly delivered by Frank Capra (Stuart Matthew Price) and the company on Mabel’s return to the studio.

Mabel is torn between Mack and the new world and drugs culture of Hollywood talkies. What’s missing is any musical theatre expression of that slump; “Time Heals Everything,” portentously delivered by Pitt-Pulford at the top of a shaky tower, comes across as a take-home torch song, not a fully earned dramatic outpouring.

In the last revival, Janie Dee performed a zonked-out tap routine, limbs flailing like an abandoned puppet’s, that did the job. That John Doyle production, using the same Francine Pascal revisions, tightened the show more successfully, placing it all in Mack’s memory.

Here, the narrative is shared out, for no good reason, with Richard J Hunt’s jolly, enthusiastic Fatty Arbuckle and Jessica Martin’s terrific Lottie Ames. The result is a scattergun, fussily designed (by Jason Denvir) movie-lot musical making some of the same points, but far less entertainingly, as Singin' in the Rain.

It’s no consolation to reflect, in this summer of sport, that the famous overture – wittily relocated as an entr’acte in Doyle’s bare-bones revival – provided the soundtrack to Torvill and Dean’s ice-skating triumph in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.


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