Mack and Mabel

Although this show has now ended it’s UK tour, it’s still one worthy of reviewing. 

Before I get into the reivew, two important things are going to become aparant as I go through, so we might as well get them out of the way now. 

1. I am a John Barroman fan. 

2. I am a Michael Ball fan. 

Phew. It feels good to confess such things. The latter is obviously neccessary to know for this production the former less obvious. So lets start with that. I first discovered Mack and Mabel as a musical thanks to John Barrowman, at in fact the concert in this very clip: 

(If anyone is interested, yes a field in North Wales in September is as cold an wet as you’d imagine) 

Barrowman sings the song, and introduces it as the love song that his partner thinks perfectly describes him. As it happens it’s the song that I feel perfectly describes my own approach (yes I realise this is not perhaps something to put on an online dating profile, however it is the truth)

In ‘I won’t send roses’ Mack Sennett sings: 

I won’t send roses

Or hold the door
I won’t remember
Which dress you wore
My heart is too much in control
The lack of romance in my soul
Will turn you grey, kid
So stay away, kid

Like Mack I’m disinclined to romance. The later line ‘I’d be the first one to agree, I’m preoccupied with me’ also struck a chord.Mack doesn’t need romance, but of course he does really, and maybe we all do. In the show Mabel retorts that she can get along just fine, without a gushing valentine. But of course she would have also been better off with a bit of romance from Mack. 

Mack and Mabel is an unconventional old fashioned romance in an unconventional old fashioned musical. In both elements, the outside looks like what we’d expect-young girl meets older powerful man who turns her head, a musical set in the glamour of 1920s Hollywood. But neither thigns are quite what they seem. Jerry Herman’s quirky yet beautiful score against Michael Stewart’s fascinating play makes for a twist on Hollywood musicals and Hollywood romance. 

In this production as well the casting of Michael Ball by director Jonathan Church (until very recentl artistic director at Chichester where this produciton originated) plays with this going againt type. Although Ball went roaring against type by playing Sweeney Todd in 2012, we all know Ball for playing the romantic hero and belting out big showtunes. Oh and also a cheery voice from a Radio 2 show. 

Confession number 2: I’m a Michael Ball fan. Or Michael’s Balls as he is for inexplicable reasons known in our house. I’m a child of the 80s who grew up loving musicals. How could I not have a soft spot for the curly haired dimpled Marius? I’ve grown up with him, like a favourite uncle (if I had a favourite uncle, I don’t, mine are either awful or dead so if Michael wants the job it’s his). I’ve rarely gotten to see him perform live in musicals either, so this was a real treat. 

And although Sweeney was labelled as a big break away for Ball, I’d argue Mack was a bigger challenge, and a bigger reward acting-wise. Sweeney is a big brash departure and a villain to revel in. Mack in complex. He wants to make people happy-he lives to make people laugh, but he can’t make himself or the woman he loves happy. Like many a clown he’s tortured and conflicted. He has, as his signature song says, a quick temper and one that came out dangerously in Ball’s interpretation, but he isn’t too quick or too harsh with Mack’s harder side. His downfall is gradual and heartbreaking and it’s a real showcase of the acting skills that Ball has rarely shown before. The final scene with Mabel was beautifully heartbreaking. 

Both leads in fact are delightful and believable. Although vocally it isn’t the best fit for Ball’s voice and it did seem to be showing the strain by the final performance.  Rebecca LaChance’s voice and acting were also spot on for Mable, starting as the quirky clumsy girl from the deli and blossoming into an actress, and then crumbling as she unravels. I found myself falling both for Mack, as Mabel does, in spite of his failings still loving him, but also loving Mabel, her mixture of endearing sweetness but also the vigor and strength to get her through all that life was throwing at her. A great musical theatre lady brought to life brilliantly by LaChance. 

The production as a whole is beautifully staged, making clever use of video projections to show clips of Mack and Mabel’s films, and to create scenes beyond the sparse soundstage on which much of the action takes place. Praise must be given also to the incredibly hardworking ensemble who not only inhabit many different characters as extras in all the film scenes but also execute some incredible dance routines. 

Mack and Mabel is a difficult musical to stage. It’s a hard sell to give old Hollywood and romance this darker twist. Indeed I overheard an audience member saying on exit it ‘Wasn’t what I expected’. Sadly I don’t think that individual meant in a good way, but I disagree, Mack and Mabel is a great musical becuase we don’t get what we expect or what we want.

I find this musical a heartbreakingly beautiful piece of writing, and this production more than did it justice. 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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