Mack & Mabel performed at The Theatre Royal Nottingham on Tuesday 24th November 2015

Review by Sandra Cooper

Nottingham’s Theatre Royal has only gone and done it again, by nabbing the first showing of Mack & Mabel straight after it premiered at The Chichester Festival Theatre. Ever since its Broadway failure in 1974, people have been trying to resuscitate this Jerry Herman musical, but I cannot imagine a more lavish attempt than this one by the wonderful director, Jonathan Church.

A true story told in flashback, with a defeated Mack Sennett, bankrupt and about to lose his studio; reminiscing about the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age, where the fun of the silent screen dominated, and where he plied his comic craft. With uncompromising narrative, it is quickly apparent that Sennett is not a particularly warm person; in fact he is tyrannical, arrogant and egotistical.

But there are warm moments when we see his relationship with waitress turned silent film star Mabel Normand, who he kept as a mistress for years. Her journey from stardom to a junkie alcoholic has a real sadness about it, especially as she died after making one last film with Sennett that was never released; so don’t expect a happy ending.

Michael Ball is an exceptional utterly convincing Mack. He completely gets under the skin of the character, finding precisely the right level to pitch every moment of anger, driven determination and offhand callousness.

In a dazzling first half he delivers the opening song, Movies Were Movies which sets the bar for the rest of the show. Whilst exploring the couple’s amorous relationship, he also delivers a brilliant, I Won’t Send Roses, to the vulnerable Mabel, who is played admirably by Rebecca Lachance. She later gets her own solo song with Time Heals Everything, which had the audience transfixed.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is outstanding, no more so than the climatic first half number where Sennett’s bathing beauties don’t merely toss beach balls about but use them as choreographic weapons.

After the interval there is a homage to The Keystone Cops (who Sennett made famous, as he did Charlie Chaplin) which involved much truncheon twirling mayhem as Hit ‘Em On The Road was belted out. There was the show stopping dance number in praise of the joy of tap dancing, that was gloriously led here by Anna-Jane Casey, twinkling away like a night sky, the chorus line around her in kinky bell-hop gear, sporting identical Louise Brooks bobs.

Robert Jones’ simple yet very effective stage design is gloriously glamourous. It includes two extraordinarily illusions of a train hurtling through the plains, and an ocean going liner which seems to move along at a gentle pace. His costumes are gorgeous and period perfect. Ball is given flattering and quite beautiful 3 piece suits to wear. Mabel is blessed with gorgeous outfits and there is just immaculate attention to details in the dozens of costumes the ensemble wear, from bathing suits to black tie, with police uniforms and busboy livery along the way.

Throughout Ball keeps it all going and is exceptional. He uses his big, bright voice deftly, producing clear, strong notes and perfectly supported passages of soft and delicate singing. His work in I Wanna Make The World Laugh and especially I Promise You a Happy Ending is remarkable. He is no slouch in the dance department either, surprisingly nimble and energetic.

But Ball has some tremendous support. The ensemble singing is terrific with not a note lost. Gunner Cauthery is splendid as Frank, the office assistant. Mark Insoe oozes charm from every pore as WB Taylor, whilst Alex Gianni and Timothy Quinlan are perfect as the money men.

But the evening belongs to Ball. His charisma, stamina and overwhelming skill leaves a permanent impression. With Herman’s score and lyrics, it’s another Theatre Royal treat.