The Southwark Playhouse has proven to be one of London’s top addresses for high quality fringe theatre with shows like Parade and Floyd Collins. Their latest musical theatre production is Mack and Mabel, a show that tells the relationship between Hollywood director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand who became one of his biggest stars in the late 1910s.
Music and lyrics for this show were written by Jerry Herman and the book by Michael Stewart, revised by Francine Pascal. The original 1974 Broadway production starred Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston and received eight Tony Award nominations.
The Vault is a former railway tunnel which has been transformed into a unique and atmospheric performing space. And while I can’t imagine watching a feel-good and happy show in there, the place is perfect for a show that does well with a gloomy or melancholic setting.
I really like the U-Shape staging they’ve done for this show. But I’d definitely choose the centre rows over the rows on either side of the performing area as I guess the view might be slightly restricted on the sides.
The only real downside of this theatre are the ridiculously uncomfortable seats and the slightly damp air which makes concentrating on the show a slight challenge after a while.
Norman Bowman is stepping into the role of movie director Mack Sennett. His portrayal is intense and gripping and had me on the edge of my seat throughout the show. Mack certainly is no character that vows himself into the audience’s hearts. He’s driven by his passion for making movies and it’s hard for him to accept that there might be something else in life that is more important. Norman’s Mack seems almost haunted by his one and only ambition: To make people laugh. The fact that someone who seems unable to love and who is simply not very likeable is so dedicated to bringing people joy with his movies is one of the features of Mack that I found most interesting. And despite all that, Norman manages to make me feel for Mack who slowly realises that he actually does love Mabel but is unable to properly express his feelings until it’s too late.
Laura Pitt-Pulford gives an outstanding performance as Mabel Normand, the sandwich delivery girl who becomes a movie star. She brings out a vulnerability in Mabel that makes it impossible not to love her. I especially liked the on stage chemistry between her and Norman. Those two work exceptionally well together.
The third stand out performance in this show is definitely Stuart Matthew Price as Frank Capra. He manages to really shine in a part that could be drowned out by the two leads if played by an actor with just an average stage presence. Just one minor grudge: I wish he would get to sing more – it’s a shame to “waste” such a beautiful voice.
The rest of the performers are without exception perfectly cast. There is no weak link on stage (except for a rather rebellious egg). It was good to see Steven Serlin again – Saturday Night Fever seems like ages ago! And big thumbs up for Jessica Martin. Her facial expressions during the silent movie scenes were hilarious and I generally loved her portrayal of Lottie Ames.
Mack and Mabel is yet another example for a high class fringe show that doesn’t have to hide behind the big West End productions. With a fantastic cast, a lovely score (“I won’t send roses” has to be one of the most beautiful and truthful love songs ever written) and a small yet very effective set.
As for the story itself: I think it’s a well told romance between two people who couldn’t be more different when it comes to their ideas of a relationship. My only criticism would be that the whole story is slightly obvious from the start. You can guess how the show is going to end pretty easily after the first few minutes. This one has the “no happy ending” stamp printed all over its cover.
But that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of Mack and Mabel. I had a wonderful time and can’t recommend this show enough. Please do consider watching this one over one of the big West End musicals and show your support for fringe theatre. You won’t be disappointed.
For more info and to book tickets go to http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-vault/mack-and-mabel/
Photos by http://www.annabelverephotography.com