Mack And Mabel

Published April 17, 2008

Jerry Herman is the only composer/lyricist in history to have had three musicals exceed 1,500 consecutive performances on Broadway. Mack And Mabel, a show that Herman considers a ‘favourite child’, isn’t one of them. In Herman’s eyes it has never received the recognition it should have compared with his other work. The new Watermill theatre production, staged at the Criterion and starring David Soul and Janie Dee, hopes to change that. Matthew Amer attended the first night (as did Mr Herman)…

Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone Cops, is one of the pioneers of film, creating movies that affect the entire history of the industry. Mabel Normand is his leading lady, plucked from a job at the local deli and moulded into a star. From simple, uncomplicated beginnings a complicated relationship unfurls.

David Soul plays the over-bearing Mack, a life-worn figure looking back. Though he doesn’t possess the voice of a seasoned West End tenor, his ‘worn-in’ tones fit perfectly with the character, to which he brings a resonance of regret, but also inevitability where his emotional hindrances are concerned.

Janie Dee is adorable as Mabel. She moves from wide-eyed, naïve youth that lights up a room, through steely-eyed performer with newly stirred up artistic integrity, to glazed-eyed addict going through the motions. In ensemble number Tap Your Troubles Away, it is devastating to see what the naturally funny girl-next-door has become.

The small scale production, which features only 11 performers, follows the trademark style of director John Doyle, with ten of the eleven cast members playing instruments as well as acting and singing. Soul is the only performer without something to bang or blow. The instruments, in addition to providing musical accompaniment, are also used in classic moments of physical comedy that hark back to the silent era of film in which the musical is set.

Mark Bailey’s design is as innovative as it is simplistic. A silent movie set – cameras, lights, chairs etc – is transformed with minimal prop adjustment into trains and ships.

It is Herman’s score that is often the star of the show. The opening number, Movies Were Movies, starts the production with a wide smile which, though the tumultuous love affair takes the audience’s emotions through peaks and troughs, is never far away. Soul’s rendition of I Won’t Send Flowers comes like a snapshot to the heart of Sennett, and Look What Happened To Mabel, in which Janie Dee lights up the stage, is classic Broadway.

Among all of this, the story is central. Though Sennett may be an emotionally retarded workaholic and Normand may get drawn into drink and drugs, their relationship is ever enthralling and certainly leaves a few audience members reaching for the tissues.

Mack And Mabel is currently booking at the Criterion until 22 July. em>MA