He was the first name on My List of Celebrity Obsessions and has held his place there since I discovered the original London cast recording of Les Miserables about sixteen (SIXTEEN!) years ago. I go and see him in any and every show he does. I even saw the achingly blah The Woman in White twice because of him. I am that dedicated.
This summer sees my main man playing the lead in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Mack and Mabel. The show tells the true (to an extent) story of the rise and fall of silent film director Mack Sennett and his muse/lover Mabel Normand. It’s quite a sad story without the happy ending or the big finish and, honestly, is not an obvious topic for a musical. Not that that matters of course - unlikelier shows have been written. As, sadly, have better shows. Many, many, better shows.
Mack and Mabel is not a good musical. The music isn't especially memorable for one thing - by the morning after our trip to see this production I had almost entirely forgotten all but one of the songs. The bigger problem is the book though, which runs out of steam somewhere in the middle of Act 1 so that what we’re left with for the rest of the show is long bouts of exposition, usually in the form of a Mack monologue (Mackalogue?), that try to move the plot along sandwiched in between production numbers that stop it dead. The second act suffers in particular from this and the attempts to build up to a tragic finale are as a result completely neutered. As Paul Hollywood would say, it’s got some issues.
I found the characterisation problematic too - Mack and Mabel are both obvious caricatures and both very hard to like (he’s a shit, she’s annoying). The portrayal of Mabel is pretty depressing too; a trailblazing early pioneer of female film-making in real life, in the show she becomes a lovestruck, talentless airhead with no agency of her own (one man makes her a star, another makes her a drug addict), only a couple of solos and probably a third of the lines that Mack has. There’s an essay about how kick ass the real Mabel was in the programme that is far more interesting than anything she does on stage. It’s a thankless role for an actress, one that wasn't helped in this production on the night I saw it by the fact that its Mabel (Rebecca LaChance), whilst pleasingly spunky, had some pretty obvious tuning issues. Hashtag pitchy.
Luckily, there are a lot of redeeming features that ensure that this production is still a lot of fun. A lot of the credit here has to go to choreographer Stephen Mear (of the current Chichester/West End Gypsy fame) whose routines are as spectacular as they are innovative, particularly in the really big production numbers. Big Time and Bathing Beauties in the first act and Tap Your Troubles Away in the second are particular highlights and the slapstick sequences, the Keystone Cops one especially, whilst not really my cup of tea are really well executed. The excitement that these routines produce makes the two hour run time fly by and dazzle enough to make sure that by the time you realise that the plot is dying on its arse you no longer care because ‘look, more dancing’.
There are some great performances too. Let’s not deny that this show could accurately title itself as ‘Mack and Mabel: The Michael Ball Show’ and, even without any particular depth of character to work with, he is an ace Mack. Slimy, vulnerable, wryly funny and, ultimately, sadly knowing he does his best with the material he has and certainly imbues Mack with more personality than he should have on paper. Vocally it goes without saying he owns the room and there’s always something illicitly thrilling about seeing someone who in my mind is amongst the nicest men in the world playing someone fundamentally dislikable (see also: 2012’s Sweeney Todd with which I am fucking obsessed). Pretty decent American accent too - who knew?
He’s backed up by an impressively versatile ensemble and some great supporting performances, particularly Anna-Jane Casey who’s fantastic fun as Lottie, and utterly owns her Tap Your Troubles Away routine to the extent that I sort of wanted to rush the stage and give her a high five, and Gunnar Cauthery who provides a much needed dose of heart and sincerity as sensitive writer Frank. I also enjoyed Mark Inscoe’s William Desmond Taylor who I think we’re supposed to regard as the villain but is actually one of the more charismatically likeable characters for my money, even if he is a major sleaze.
Overall, then, a really strong production of a really weak show. Worth a look, especially if you’re a Michael Ball fan - and if you’re not a Michael Ball fan then you have bad opinions. The Chichester Festival Theatre is lovely too - modern, roomy, efficient - and is a great bet for catching West End quality shows at non-West End prices (we paid £26 each for an off-centre third row of the stalls, difficult to argue with that).
Mack and Mabel is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until September 5th, after which it tours (and transfers to the West End?).