Mack & Mabel at Bord Gais Energy Theatre review: 'with an under excavated Mabel, the sombre ending feels unsatisfactory
Based on the real life tumultuous romance between comedy director Mack Sennett and his star Mabel Normand, this musical’s real love affair is with the silent movie era.
First produced in 1974 on Broadway, with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, this Chichester Festival Theatre Production spools its way through the early days of cinema from 1911 to 1930 and the advent of talkies.
Mack Sennett was the king of slapstick; his legacy includes the Keystone Cops and custard pie fights. But his inability to be serious about movies makes him equally unable to be serious about life. Mabel, dissatisfied both personally and professionally, leaves him for another director/lover.
Great song and dance routines include Hundreds of Girls, with male and female “bathing beauties.” Act 2 climaxes with the penultimate number, Tap Your Troubles Away, a dazzling tap-dancing display led by a brilliant Anna-Jane Casey as Lottie.
Mack as a director is dominating and boorish, and treats Mabel like a puppet: “It’s the only way I can direct.” This domination/submission dynamic at both a professional and personal level is one of the most interesting features of the story, but rather than engaging with this meaty aspect, Rebecca LaChance as Mabel just gets chirpily on with the next number. With an under excavated Mabel, the sombre ending feels unsatisfactory.
For all that the psychology is got wrong, the staging is got very right. The mix of physical sets with silent movie back projection is spectacular. Excellent lighting by Howard Harrison washes out the stage to create black and white vistas, then pushes up the colours once more. A train, reminiscent of the Lumiere Brothers, got a hand on opening night. Back projected girls on swings suddenly pop onto the stage in three dimensional reality.
And Michael Ball as Mack is utterly charming and in fantastic voice; he subtly channels Orson Welles onto the stage.