Jonathan Church

Review: Mack & Mabel – Jerry Herman's love affair with the silent screen is a thrill

Rebecca LaChance (Mabel), Michael Ball (Mack) and company in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack & Mabel © Manuel Harlan Although I've seen two terrific small-scale productions of Jerry Herman's musical biopic, this is the first time there's been a chance to see just how this love song to early movie pioneers would work on the big stage – and with enough money to throw at it to exploit the idea of actually making and showing "tribute" film footage. And before the lights went up, I realised there was another vital element of this great big show that was going to make all the difference – a big band with a wonderfully big brassy sound! So my feeling of well-being began with the overture. A trio of big, familiar numbers at the top of the show serves as a delicious reminder of Herman's lush score – at the same time sophisticated, yet drawing on that evocative minor "Jewish" fall.

Once the lights go up on the deserted movie lot about to be vacated by studio boss Mack Sennett at the end of his career, you won't be disappointed either. For of course book writer Michael Stewart's device is to have him look back over his long career and especially to the glory days that began when fresh young Mabel Normand tripped into his studio to deliver a lunch snack. She came in an unknown delivery girl and, well, you can guess the rest.

So the production revels in recreating the glory days of Sennett's Keystone Studios, spiritual home of the silent comedy two-reeler, complete with custard pie fights (apparently invented by Normand) and yes, you've guessed it, comic Keystone Cops capers and chases. These routines and more are lovingly recreated on stage with great brio by a company of triple threats (they sing, they dance, they act, and that applies to both principals and ensemble). They are not only spectacularly choreographed by Stephen Mears, but also so well drilled in physical comedy by Spymonkey's Toby Park and Aitor Basauri that they look as if they can actually afford to revel in what they are doing too.

Jack Edwards (Fatty) and the Keystone Cops in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

One of the greatest delights of the storytelling is the recreations of silent movie footage: frames and frames of Mabel (played by Rebecca LaChance) are eerie and touching, as well as convincing. By the time the footage reappears at the end of the story, it has earned the emotional punch it packs.

The story of Mack & Mabel, as told by Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal, is of an uneasy working relationship that soon developed into an on-off romantic relationship – the latter summed up by Herman in Sennett's gloriously unromantic romantic manifesto, 'I won't bring roses', which is probably the show's best-known number. Sennett looks back in sorrow at how he missed his chance with Mabel and lost her to rival filmmaker William Desmond Taylor, a sinister character, who is shown encouraging her drug dependency to ensure she becomes dependent on him.

Although it makes a good story, the reality, according to a revealing programme note by Film Lecturer Rebecca Harrison, is that Normand was an accomplished writer/director/ producer herself. It does seem a shame that Stewart, and especially later reviser Pascal, did not tell the story of the rather stronger more empowered woman who was the real Mabel Normand.

Michael Ball (Mack) in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

Still it would be churlish to cavil too much, just because there is so much to enjoy here. Michael Ball is on top form as Mack Sennett, a detailed portrait of a man used to having his own way. After his last triumphant appearance at this address in Sweeney Todd with his outstanding Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, it seems likely that he will follow her into the West End, where she is currently repeating her stunning 2014 Chichester success in the title role in Gypsy. Rebecca LaChance proves a fully justified American import to play Mabel, with a performance that manages to be both gutsy and ethereal at the same time.

Anna-Jane Casey, whom I had seen at the Watermill as a marvellous Mabel in their more chamber version of the show, shines again here as Lottie, the star already in residence at Keystone, who seems to have become Mabel's bosom friend. Her tap routine leading the whole ensemble in 'Tap Your Troubles Away', the show's 11 o'clock number, is simply breathtaking and joyfully life-enhancing. It's a real treat of a spectacle, entirely dressed in black and white with artful touches of scarlet. Designer Robert Jones uses the device of monochrome to great effect throughout the show to pay homage to black and white film both scenically and often with the terrific costumes too. The way he makes full use of the huge thrust of the Chichester Festival Theatre is a real joy.

There's strong support from the rest of the principals too, especially Jack Edwards as co-star of the Keystone stable Fatty Arbuckle. And then of course there is that orchestra under musical director Robert Scott, the very backbone of this great big glorious show.

By Judi Herman

Photography © Manuel Harlan

Mack & Mabel runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £8-£45. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP; 012 4378 1312.

Review: Mark Hayhurst's debut Taken at Midnight plays a timely reminder

Taken at Midnight © Alastair Muir, Jan  2015

Jews have long lived with the idea that the Holocaust is incomprehensible in large numbers and that examination of individual stories provides greater understanding of the whole. Now there's a trend for understanding what happened in Germany through stories of individuals who supported or opposed the events at the time; think of Zone of Influence by Martin Amis, for example, a love story set in the German officers' quarters at an extermination camp. Taken at Midnight is the story of lawyer Hans Litten, one of many political prisoners bundled into "protective custody" as the Nazis consolidated their power after the Reichstag fire. Litten’s "crime" was to have called Hitler as a witness in the trial of four stormtroopers accused of murder and to have exposed the denied link between the Nazi party and SA (Sturmabteilung/Brownshirts) violence.

The dramatic device in Mark Hayhurst’s play is to see all the events through the five-year campaign of Litten’s mother Irmgard (Penelope Wilton) to get him released. Played out on an austere grey set by Robert Jones that echoes brutalist Nazi architecture, with stark lightning by Tim Mitchell and nerve-scraping music by Matthew Scott to match, we see how a mother's love and persistence attempts to save her son.

The play intercuts between Litten’s various prison camps and Irmgard’s increasingly frustrated attempts to find out what’s happening to her son. Exposition in the early scenes means the drama is slow to get going but it soon hits its stride, especially in the set pieces between Irmgard and the cool and oily Gestapo officer Conrad (John Light), where Wilton’s ability to deliver the reasonable voice of the silent majority in the face of implacable bureaucracy strikes hardest.

There's also a moving scene in Dachau between Irmgard and Hans (a redoubtable Martin Hutson) leading up to the climax of the play.Leaving the devasting court room critique of Hitler almost to the very end brings home the bravery of all those who opposed his will in any way, having seen what befell just one man and his two cell-mates, Carl von Ossietzsky and Erich Muehsam (Mike Grady and Pip Donaghy adding gallows humour).

Jonathan Church directs a fine cast with poised restraint. Everyone is chillingly reticent and this serves to highlight the contrast between words and actions, notably those of Conrad who fobs off all enquiries and the ineffectual British Lord Allen (David Yelland) visiting to enquire after the treatment of political prisoners.

We do lose track of Hans's father (Allan Corduner), a baptised Jew and holder of the Iron Cross First Class who supported Irmgard admirably but seems subsequently to have left his Christian wife, perhaps for her own sake, though that is not explicit. But it’s not the fate of the Jews that matters here, even though Litten is counted as Jewish by the Nazis.

While we learn little more about the banality of evil from this play, it's a timely reminder of the honest intentions of the many Germans who opposed Hitler in 1930 and who subsequently deserve to be named as victims of the Holocaust. And it’s a timely warning to us to heed those sounding today’s warning sirens.

By Judi Herman

Taken at Midnight runs until Saturday 14 March. 7.30pm (also 3pm Wed/Sat). £15-£59.50. Theatre Royal Haymarket, SW1Y 4HT; 020 7930 8800.