A mere 18 months after we originally booked it, after the first Covid cancellation, then a further enforced rearranged date because theatre social distancing didn’t keep up with Johnson’s unfurling summer road map, seven of us eventually descended on our favourite stately Sussex city to see Daniel Evans’ new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical.
“South Pacific? Isn’t that a cheesy old show that has no relevance to today?” I hear you ask. You’d be so wrong. My only previous exposure to the show was seeing a plucky amdram performance 25 or so years ago and a couple of well known scenes from the film; plus, of course, Morecambe and Wise’s iconic addition to the Nothing like a Dame archive. As one of our group remarked during the interval, when you see There is Nothin’ Like a Dame in the full context of the show, you realise it isn’t a cheeky and oblique comment on how nice it would be to have a bit of feminine company around you to cheer the place up. It’s actually an observation that these guys are sex-starved and desperate for a damn good rogering.
And that’s at the heart of why this show feels so relevant today. What, on the surface, seems rather coy and polite, conceals an undercurrent of harsh reality. When the female ensigns sing that they’re gonna wash that man right out of their hair, what they’re actually proposing is breaking up relationships and depriving children of a mother on a whim. When Bloody Mary sings of the beautiful mysterious island Bali Ha’i to Cable it isn’t just a travel advert for sun, sand and palm trees, it’s an entrapment to get him to meet her daughter Liat in the hope that they will hit it off. And when she then encourages him to talk Happy Talk to her, she’s beseeching him to agree to an arrangement between them that will rescue Liat out of their war torn Polynesian island and provide her safety in the good ol’ US of A. When he reveals that he cannot marry her because of his conservative upbringing and that a dark-skinned woman would never be accepted by his Princeton-funding family, the confirmation that Mary and Liat are second class citizens leaves both them and the audience disgusted and furious.
But this isn’t the main focus of the racism in this show. Our heroine, Nellie, with whom we laugh, whose spark and spirit we love and admire, whose singing enthrals us, and whom we trust will have a great loving relationship with Emile and settle down happy ever after, stuns us with her use of the C word just before the interval. No, not that C word, but one even more powerful. Discovering that Emile has two children from his Polynesian first wife, she realises that he must have had sex with a “Coloured” woman; and you can feel her shudder with disgusted horror. The realisation that she is racist drops like a bombshell before we all go out for our interval Merlots.
The show makes us re-evaluate what we assume about it right from the start, when Liat’s innocent dancing is dramatically overtaken by the American invading forces, descending from their helicopters, and running around the island, literally stamping their authority on idyllic foreign soil. No wonder Oscar Hammerstein came under the stern scrutiny of the state, who questioned his allegiance and loyalty to the United States. There is a stunning and eloquent song, You’ve got to be Carefully Taught, which explains with great simplicity how racism isn’t a natural thing but something you learn from your youth. This questioning of traditional American values was seen as Communist sympathising in some quarters, and pressure was brought on Rodgers and Hammerstein to withdraw the song from the show, but they refused. It was central to what they wanted the show to say; without this song they would have withdrawn the show. It stayed in.
Daniel Evans’ masterful production uses the great space of the Festival Theatre to its best advantage, emphasising both the grand scale of some of the bigger numbers and the lonely solitariness of its more introspective moments. Peter McKintosh’s versatile and constantly evolving (and revolving!) set immaculately recreates scenes such as the makeshift stage where the Ensign girls present their Thanksgiving Follies, or their simply constructed shower huts. Ann Yee’s choreography is exciting and fun in those big numbers, and Cat Beveridge’s sky high band whacks out those sumptuous tunes with a beautiful richness. Everything about the production feels like you’re truly privileged to be witnessing it.
Previously sharing the role of Nellie with Gina Beck is Alex Young, now playing her full-time. Ms Young is among my favourite performers, who never fails to bring wit and emotion to all her fantastic roles. Here she makes light work of I’m in love with a wonderful guy, Wash that man right outa my hair, Honey Bun and those delicious duets with Emile and Cable. She’s an effortless star with a great stage presence; it’s because she’s so good on stage that she still takes the audience with her on the rest of her journey after the end of Act One bombshell. She is matched by a brilliant performance from Julian Ovenden as Emile, who performs Some Enchanted Evening as though it were a brand new song that we’ve never heard before, and completely steals the show with the goosebump-creating This Nearly Was Mine, which encapsulates the heartache and havoc that idiotic racism causes. I think it’s also fair to say that he made all the ladies in our party go completely weak at the knees.
Rob Houchen is superb as the clean-cut, heroic Cable, giving us a stunning performance of Younger Than Springtime, and delivering the essential message of You’ve got to be Carefully Taught with devastating clarity. Joanna Ampil is a delightfully caustic streetwise Bloody Mary, nevertheless creating a beautiful vision of Bali Ha’i with her exquisite voice; and her performance of Happy Talk is one of those musical theatre revelation moments when a song that you think you know like the back of your hand is turned inside out with completely new meaning and nuance. It’s as far away from Captain Sensible as you can get.
It’s essential for a production of South Pacific to cast exactly the right person for the comic-tragic role of Luther, and Keir Charles gets him down to a T. He manages to convince us that Luther is both a scamp and a villain; a conman with maybe a heart of gold – it’s hard to tell, because it’s never been tried. Mr Charles brings something of a lump to our throats with Luther’s unrequited love for Nellie; but he’s the cat with nine lives, you always know he’s going to thrive and survive somehow. All this, and fronting the Seabees’ big numbers and Honey Bun-ing it with Nellie en travestie. A fantastic performance.
David Birrell and Adrian Grove bring warmth and a touch of humour to what could otherwise be the hard military presence of Brackett and Harbison; Sera Maehara is a beautiful and elegant Liat; Danny Collins (another of my favourite performers) and Carl Au give great support as Professor and Stewpot; and, on the performance we saw, Emile’s children Jerome and Ngana were enchantingly performed by Alexander Quinlan and Lana Lakha in fine voice and exuding confidence. All the very talented and extended ensemble put their hearts and souls into amazing vocal and dance performances.
This is one of those rare productions where every aspect was pitch perfect. To be honest, I’d never considered South Pacific to be one of musical theatre’s greatest hits, but this production removes the veil from our eyes (and ears!) to give us a challenging, heart-warming, and massively entertaining show, and the most thrilling return to a big musical show for the Chichester Theatre. It’s only on now until 5th September, but if you can’t get to Chichester, there are still two streaming performances available on 31st August and 3rd September. In any event, I can’t imagine this will be the last we will see of this immense production – West End Transfer Please!
Production photos by Johan Persson