The West End is clogged with artery-hardening warhorses, so fringe is the saviour of ingenuity – specifically the Southwark Playhouse, where – once you get past the overpowering reek of the mildewed walls and the rumble of trains – Jerry Hermans’ legendary flop has been turned into something dark and glittering.
I admit I have the musical gene – it’s a constant source of embarrassed apology, especially when the shows to which you drag disbelievers are bad. Luckily, here’s one friends will thank you for.
The story of Mack Sennett and his discovery Mabel Normand has been revived twice before in London, and in each incarnation it failed. Usually the demands of a big production require upbeat glamour, and Herman, who could always hammer out a great auditorium-filling tune like no other, wrote one of his greatest scores for this. But this story of an incompatible romance set against the birth of movies proved too downbeat, and the music grated against the book. Now, finally, the disparate elements have been resolved and the piece has come of age under the tutelage of Thom Southerland, who has stripped off the glitter to reveal a devastating love story.
In many ways, the tale of Sennett and Normand is the archetype of all showbiz fables. They’re flying by the seats of their pants, making money hand over fist as the movie industry takes off and quickly falls prey to ugly realities. He finds her, makes her and breaks her, then wants her back – but by this time it’s too late, and drugs have taken their toll on his star.
It’s hard to see what Mabel finds attractive about the hunched, squinting Mack – he’s acknowledged to be an obsessive bully, forced by the studio system into producing up to fifteen two-reelers every fortnight. There’s something of Scorsese in his single-mindedness; he is unable to imagine women on their own terms. Mack can’t see that he’s wrong about films, either. The talkies will blow over, no-one will want colour, artistic integrity is for fools. Mabel will accept his offhandedness, his small daily cruelties, but what she can’t suffer is his lack of respect.
The core of the show is Laura Pitt-Pulford’s astonishingly radiant Mabel. Broad of face and wide of eye, quick to seek approval, she draws the role of the flame-haired Irish waitress away from caricature into the real world. The eleventh hour torch song ‘Time Heals Everything’ usually ensures a few undry eyes in the house. Here, you’re reduced to a mess even before she tears into it, to shattering effect. In fact, for a show that has a brilliantly false-upbeat tap-dancing routine near its close, it’s an incredibly melancholy piece about the pressures of creativity and the end of love. Try taking your eyes off Mabel as she moves for Mack watching him alone. In love with a man who can never give anything back until it’s too late, she’s drawn to return again and again, only to be let down.
It’s a production in which time heals everything including Herman’s reputation as a sentimentalist, and is proof that Sondheim isn’t the only writer of great modern musicals. If there’s any justice it will transfer to the West End, but see it now in intimate surroundings, where it can still reduce an audience to jelly.