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Watermill - Mack and Mabel

18th May to 9th July 2005.

From The Guardian.

Three stars
Despite a brief West End outing a few years back, Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's 1974 Broadway flop is best known in the UK for the use of some of its score by Torvill and Dean during their Olympic ice-dancing bid in 1984. In fact, the score is better than that suggests although, despite revisions by Francine Pascal, this story of love and movie-making focusing on silent slapstick director Mack Sennett and his muse, Mabel Normand, is still gossamer thin.

John Doyle's production injects plenty of energy - perhaps too much at times, as the show feels a little too insistent for the tiny stage - as well as capturing echoes of the wistful melancholy of a score and story that work as fading memory, something caught in amber. Although hampered by David Soul as Sennett - an actor who hails from the Rex Harrison school of singing and who is at times inaudible - Doyle's production is probably as good as this musical gets on stage. I suspect that it is one of those shows that works best as a soundtrack, with melodic tunes such as I Won't Send Roses and Look What Happened to Mabel working better as stand alone songs rather than in the framework of a flimsy story.

Despite the flaws there is fun to be had along the way, with Anna-Jane Casey proving why she is one of the best musical actresses around: a great pair of lungs and an ability to bring dramatic depth to a role. Caught forever in the follow-spot and the eye of the camera, Normand's decline into drug-taking and scandal is presented beautifully - she appears to disintegrate before your eyes, like a ghost who is haunting herself. It may not be a classic Watermill summer musical, but it is still a much more enjoyable experience than most trips to the West End.

LYN GARDNER

From The Times.

Four stars
Taking on Jerry Herman’s notorious musical flop is a brave move. Mack and Mabel bombed on Broadway in 1974, and fared little better when it finally arrived in London 21 years later. Herman’s dazzling musical numbers are encumbered by Michael Stewart’s sentimental, meandering book. But if anyone can put the guts back into this soft-centred tale of early 20th-century Hollywood, it’s John Doyle.

Doyle, along with Sarah Travis, the arranger and musical supervisor, and an 11-strong cast of actor-musicians serve up a daring blend of showstopping pizzazz and raw emotion that exposes the seamy side of silent movies, and in which the happy ending is just the rheumy-eyed fantasy of a washed-up old has-been.

That gone-to-seed character is Mack Sennett, the legendary director and sometime lover of Herman’s heroine, the actress Mabel Normand. The action takes place in flashback, as Mack, wandering uselessly around the set of a new “talkie”, reminisces about his glory days of Keystone Kops, custard pies and bathing beauties.

Doyle’s Watermill production favours rough-edged excitement over gloss, with Mark Bailey’s murky chainlink set springing thrillingly to life as Mack recalls his first meeting with Mabel, the kooky kid he made a star.

David Soul’s whisky-slugging Mack is no smoothie showman — he sloughs off self-pity and bitterness to show the barking control freak he once was, his tenderness carefully concealed. Soul is vocally underpowered, but he conveys acutely Mack’s inner conflict: in the beautiful I Won’t Send Roses, he is both falling in love with Anna-Jane Casey’s infatuated Mabel, and trying to sing himself out of it.

Casey is sensational. With her soaraway voice, long legs, pretty face and dark curls, she steals your heart dancing up a storm or delighting in pratfalls. But she is better still when Mabel’s star begins to wane. Enraged by Mack’s insensitivity, she spits the furious Wherever He Ain’t from a mouth contorted by pain.

Her escalating drug use turns Time Heals Everything into a prolonged sob punctuated by snorts of cocaine. It’s uncompromising, unlovely and utterly compelling.

Doyle can’t disguise Stewart’s scant book, and some of the slapstick falls flat. Otherwise, this is a production to set you tingling. Tough, and at its best, terrific.

SAM MARLOWE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Sensational Mack and Mabel

Mack and Mabel, at The Watermill, until July 9

In the days when movies were movies and sound came from a piano, there was a larger-than-life director called Mack Sennett who wanted to make the world laugh. He created stars like Mabel Normand, the waitress from Flatbush who fell in love with him. Mack and Mabel is their story.

"Keep the heart!" composer and lyricist Jerry Herman told director John Doyle and musical arranger Sarah Travis during a discussion about The Watermill's latest production.

They have done so by putting in place two masters of their trade - the fantastic, dynamic Anna-Jane Casey as Mabel and the laidback husky-voiced David Soul as Mack who, like another MGM producer of the time, could not understand "why people wanted to hear actors talk". It is a combination which strikes fire, making this one of the best Doyle/Travis productions so far.

Both have the vital gift of including the audience in the production, addressing us as friends whose opinion matter. So we experience the exuberant excitement of Mabel, agonise when Mack tells her he "won't send roses" and desperately pray that Mack will contact Mabel to stop her leaving him because of his dictatorial approach to her acting.

In a cleverly monochrome setting studded with movie cameras and steel balconies reminiscent of West Side Story, the action is exciting, exactingly vital and the music, varying from brash to heartrending but always excellent, is performed by the largest company of actor/musicians at The Watermill so far including the effervescent Sarah Whittuck as Lotty.

An immense sense of enjoyment comes in waves from the cast with numbers like This Time It's the Big Time, Tap Your Troubles Away and When Mabel Comes Into the Room, contrasting with the beautiful Time Heals Everything - Anna-Jane pouring poignancy into hoping she can forget Mack Next Year, Some Year.

No need to worry Jerry, this production has a big heart. The fact that it has Soul, too, will do it no harm. When asked, in the after show talkback, to describe what it was like working at The Watermill, David's reply was "sensational". Yup, that's the word for this Mack and Mabel. Along with unmissable.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

From the Daily Telegraph.

"An ace collection of songs with a really duff script" was how the Telegraph's Charles Spencer greeted Mack and Mabel when, after a 21-year wait, the 1974 Broadway flop finally made it into the West End.

Ten years later, one is inclined to agree with him 110 per cent, on seeing the Watermill Theatre's pocket-sized revival, directed by John Doyle.

Doyle takes things at such a lick, using his regular device of an ensemble of actor-musicians, that you almost don't have time to notice that Jerry Herman's musical about the workaholic silent movie director Mack Sennett (a wonderfully forlorn David Soul) and his upstart leading lady Mabel Normand (a captivating Anna-Jane Casey) is an empty affair.

Pause for a nanosecond, though, and you'll wonder why so much effort has gone into something so insubstantial.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

From Kick FM.

John Doyle and Sarah Travis have stamped their own style on Watermill productions. The combination of actor-musicians on the small stage is always a compelling combination, and they’ve done it again with Mack and Mabel, the story of the girl from the deli who becomes a silent movie star. Mack Sennet and Mabel Normand have a tempestuous love-hate relationship, but the mismatch of their ambitions drives them apart. In the end, Mabel’s decline into drug addiction gets turned into a Hollywood big finish, if not a happy ending.

The play is heavily dependent on the two main characters. Anna-Jane Casey was magnificent as Mabel; a gutsy performance showing the charisma that attracted her to Sennet in the first place. David Soul, as Mack, was convincing with his self-centredness, gradually being won over by Mabel’s charms, but the night I went he was having a little trouble remembering the words which slowed the pace down.

Perhaps not as memorable a production as some of the other Doyle-Travis greats, but an enjoyable evening.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Sunday Times.

Three stars
This little firecracker of a musical — tough, funny and cheerfully soppy — is about the tempestuous relationship between Mack Sennett, of Keystone Cops fame, and Mabel Normand, the brilliant comedienne of silent movies. Music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman, of Hello Dolly! fame. John Doyle directs it with a frisky sense of humour and a cast of 11, nine of whom also sing, tap-dance, play music and act; and Mark Bailey has created a brilliantly versatile set. David Soul gives a warm, understated performance as Sennett, the autocrat with a softish centre. Anna- Jane Casey is Mabel, a sparky, impish and irresistibly sexy tomboy that only the American theatre can produce — or so I thought, until I discovered that she hails from Lancashire.

A treat for a summer evening — no, any evening.

JOHN PETER

The Stage review: ("What a show! ... skilful direction and a superbly versatile cast"). The Rogues & Vagabonds review is here ("ten out of ten for the production"). The Reviews Gate review is here ("not quite vintage [but] it is still an evocative and memorable show, a real cut above most musicals on show right now").