Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Saturday 24 September 2022
|Julian Ovenden 'Emile de Becque' and Gina Beck 'Ensign Nellie Forbush'.
The 1948 musical composed by Richard Rodgers, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan returns to Newcastle with a lavish production and a superb cast. Superficially the tale is a love story at a time of war. The writers push a progressive (for the 1940s) message about racism in what was a ground breaking musical.
It is easy to get bogged down in an essay about the themes of this tale. Lets start with this production first!
The theatre had a few rows of seats removed in order to extend the orchestra pit. In there was a decent sized collection of instruments rather than just a couple of keyboards. The sixteen musicians created a beautiful sound that took advantage of the natural acoustics of this wonderful theatre. Add that to a sound design from Paul Groothuis that kept the volume at a natural, rather than massive amplified level, and the music side of things is set up to really please the audience.
The Prologue starts with a contrast between the native inhabitants of this South Pacific island and the American armed forces before two children start singing. At our performance Ngana played by Lilou Domagala, and Jerome played by George Ray Pang start with the delightful Dites Moi which sets the show up so nicely.
Two of the main characters then enter the stage. Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) is a French plantation owner who is enjoying the company of American nurse Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck). Between them you have a pair of very strong singing voices that work really well in both solo peices and together. The theme of Some Enchanted Evening will be repeated later in the show and Ovenden is given the opportunity to show his range and tone with a flourish.
Nellie is trying to also organise an entertainment show for the troops on the island and the story looks at the shenanigans between the people who find themselves on the island. There are highs and lows, laughs for the audience and a look at some of the relationships too. At times you need reminding that there is a war on.
I imagine that when the show first opened over 70 years ago, some of the lines used by the civilian trader Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil) were considered shocking. The dialogue throughout the show is contemporaneous to the 1940s, which is when the story is set and was written. It has not been sanitised for our 2022 sensibilities. I wouldn't imagine that Bloody Mary's lines particularly shock now - but what comes later is likely to.
The score and songs stand up to the test of time. Despite not having seen the show before, I was familiar with a number of songs. I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair is one of the Act One highlights in this vein. Act Two begins with Happy Talk and Joanna Ampil delivers a wonderfully fragile and emotional angle to a well known number.
Whilst the audience enjoys the exploits in this tale, the costume, lighting and set design really stand out. This show has very high production values that one would expect from a West End transfer. It all looks "right".
So yes I did enjoy the lavish production with its great acting, marvelous songs which are performed so well. But...there has to be a but here, the themes are the elephant in the room.
This musical was ground breaking for a number of reasons. It is from a era when musicals where moving from "review" style shows ('and now here's the dancing girls' etc) to shows in which the songs deliver exposition and move the story on. This musical also tries to tackle some themes head on whilst ignoring others. It tries to make a social statement - but it is of its times.
Obviously, it tackles racism. That was intentional. When a character that you grow to love on stage suddenly shows that they are a massive racist you are left feeling conflicted. The writers wanted to make a statement. How that now lands is not for me, as white middle aged bloke, to answer and I'll leave that for others.
Two other issues also bubble under the surface. The misogyny reflects the times. The men are there to fight, the women are there in an auxiliary capacity. But, just like in their musicals King And I and Sound Of Music, this does not stop Rogers and Hammerstein creating strong female roles. They don't need a man to mansplain on their behalf. Having said that, this show wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test!
The other point is buried in the first lines of dialogue as French plantation owner Emile suggests that HE built the plantation. I somehow doubt it. And I also doubt he is paying his workforce a living wage and thus an undercurrent of slavery is in the air. This is not addressed even though he made one of his staff/servants/slaves his wife and she had two children with him.
Yet despite this...I found it to be a really good night at the theatre that had a discussion going on the way home about both the themes that were addressed and those that were not. The performances are wonderful and this is a lavish production. I loved the large live orchestra and a sound level that was not set to "ear bleed".
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Johan Persson
South Pacific plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal on Tuesday 20 – Saturday 24 September 2022 with evening performances each night at 7.30pm and matinee performances on Wednesday and Thursday at 2pm and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced from £20.00 and can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.
|#Ad New Designs from Vegan Outfitters - click on image for details
Special Offer from The Spark Company
Use Code AUTUMN5 for 5% off when you spend £50 or more
Offer Ends: 31/12//2022