The onstage preoccupation with the early years of Hollywood that's been an occasional theme this year returns with a revival of Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman's 1974 musical Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse. Once again, the unforgiving space of the Vault has been given over to a musical but, perhaps thanks to the fact that he's worked there before with last year's Parade, director Thom Southerland has managed to get over the dodgy acoustics that plague the venue. Designer Jason Denvir has reconfigured the seating into a wide, shallow thrust, with a bank of seating and a curtain blocking the Vault's visually impressive double tunnels, along with their tendency to absorb every word anyone sings in there. The show charts the rise and fall of Keystone Studios through the turbulent relationship of director Mack Sennett (Norman Bowman) and Mabel Normand (Laura Pitt-Pulford,) the starlet he first discovered working at a deli.
The almost ridiculously long overture signals that we're definitely in for an old-fashioned musical, a genre I don't always get on with and can easily get fed up with. On the flipside if done right they can completely charm me, and Southerland's production pushes all the right buttons to bring me on side. The set is a California storage room for the now sold-off studios, and as we flash back 1929 to its beginnings in Brooklyn in 1910 the various props get brought off the shelves to bring the story to life. Both leads have impressively strong singing voices and Pitt-Pulford looks every bit the wide-eyed silent movie star, who charms Sennett but whose increasing confidence and determination to be seen as a proper actress puts his nose out of joint.
Mack and Mabel is known as a flop that's supposed to be almost impossible to make work on stage, and this version has been revised by Francine Pascal then reworked by the director during rehearsals. If, like me, you're not a big musical theatre fan the songs are unlikely to be familiar to you but they're a strong selection all the same, with the title pair's slightly twisted take on a love song "I Won't Send Roses" and Mabel's big numbers "Wherever He Ain't" and "Time Heals Everything" among the highlights. The second act focuses largely on big setpiece numbers, and in the Keystone Cops slapstick sequence "Hit 'Em On the Head" and Lottie Ames' (Jessica Martin) big tap sequence "Tap Your Troubles Away" choreographer Lee Proud and the ensemble provide a lot of spectacle in an intimate space. The story also features a pre-fame Frank Capra (Stuart Matthew Price) and pre-broken bottle Fatty Arbuckle (Richard J Hunt) for the fans of old Hollywood, and apart from slightly wobbly American accents it's hard to find fault with the show - it certainly doesn't feel like this notorious flop. With Singin' In The Rain and Top Hat finding an audience in the West End, fans of those shows would do well to check out this much cheaper, more intimate, but in its own way just as spectacular alternative.
Mack and Mabel by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman, revised by Francine Pascal, is booking until the 25th of August at Southwark Playhouse's Vault.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.
Note: For at least the third time at Southwark Playhouse I had a problem collecting my tickets, this time the box office had no record of my order (or that of the next person in the queue.) So when ordering online for their shows I'd always advise putting environmental concerns aside and printing off your proof of payment, as you may need it.