Review: Mack & Mabel at Nottingham Theatre Royal

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This major new production of the classic Broadway musical Mack & Mabel, arrives on tour as a full on singing and dancing extravaganza at Nottingham Theatre Royal following its première at the Chichester Festival Theatre earlier this year. It stars double Oliver award-winning Michael Ball and newcomer Rebecca LaChance.


This show is probably one of the most eagerly awaited shows of the year in Nottingham, including the earlier artistic and box-office success of the musical Barnum, also seen at Nottingham Theatre Royal. Excitement is in the air before the show even starts as Nottingham audiences have a great fondness for the acting and vocal talents of Michael Ball evidenced by his previous sell out UK tour concert at the adjoining Royal Concert Hall in the Spring of 2015.

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Mack & Mabel is based on the real-life romance between Hollywood legends Mack Sennett (Michael Ball) and Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance). It tells the story of a group of pioneering film-makers who brought to the silent screen two reel comical tales full of tantalising antics, fun and danger with silently screeching girls tied to train tracks, handsome heroes and dastardly villains in capes, glamorous and saucy bathing beauties and the hilariously chaotic world of the Keystone Kops.

Featuring an outstanding score by Jerry Herman Mack & Mabel is widely loved for its classic Broadway hits including I Won’t Send Roses, Tap Your Troubles Away, Movies Were Movies, I Wanna Make The World Laugh and Time Heals Everything. In the world of musical theatre where a show can have three or four really memorable tunes if you are lucky, this one is overflowing with them!


Directed by Jonathan Church and complete with dazzling choreography by Chichester’s associate choreographer Stephen Mear, this Chichester production (co-produced with Playful Productions) of the musical comedy Mack & Mabel is a truly poignant love story and gripping tribute to the pioneers of silent film. The cinematographic and inventive new design is by Robert Jones (stage and costume design) and the late Michael Stewart’s original book of the 1974 show has been revised by best selling author Francine Pascal. The live orchestra is under the strong direction of Robert Scott.

The afore-mentioned anticipation is grandly rewarded by this new production’s vibrant musical numbers some of which evoke the jazz styles of the 1920s. The ensemble songs are exactly what you would expect from a top class professional lavish production especially during the second half number When Mabel Comes in The Room signalling Mabel Normand’s return to the world of the Sennett Studios. The closing first half number Hundreds of Girls is cleverly kaleidoscopic in its choreographic execution.


Michael Ball as Sennett is on top form vocally and dramatically. He shows off his musical theatre pedigree with emotional numbers like Time Heals Everything and I Won’t Send Roses plus more energetic comical pieces like I Wanna Make The World Laugh. Portraying such a monomaniacal and unromantic character as Max Sennett Ball still takes us into his character’s rather obsessive heart and draws out our sympathies as he realises his missed chances to win the love of Mabel. This actor-audience connection is particularly true when Sennett’s silent film career starts to falter due to the introduction of the ‘talkies’. His chemistry with Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance) is palpable and the two of them bring out all of the complexities of their on-off relationship through their fine acting and Jerry Herman’s songs and score.

LaChance lights up the stage in the title role of Mabel the hash slinger (a server in a cheap US restaurant who is snappy with the customers) suddenly turned silent movie star. LaChance has a very expressive and powerful voice conveying all the complex emotions of her flawed character. There is a clear and moving transition between her bubbly vivacity as the ‘star’ on set and the vulnerable personality suffering from early stages of tuberculosis and hooked on drugs in real life.

The drug abuse aspects of the story are more alluded to than made a big deal of. Francine Pascal’s revised book concentrates more on Mabel Normand’s achievements in the world of cinema during her relatively short life rather than her weaknesses.

In reality Mabel Normand was a popular actress, screenwriter and collaborator in Max Sennett’s Keystone productions. She had her own studio and production company and appeared in a dozen films with Charlie Chaplin and even more with Fatty Arbuckle. Despite two major scandals in her life she continued to work successfully in films until tuberculosis and her recreational habits took their eventual toll. In the show her decline is shown during the final scenes but no real explanation is given of the cause/s of her death. Theatrically the catharsis is demonstrated once again through film devices which is a fitting way to remember her youthful and beguiling talents.

In a large cast Anne -Jane Casey stands out as Mack Sennett’s sidekick and skilled tap dancer Lottie Ames. Casey really gets to show off her tap dancing skills in the lively song and dance routine Tap Your Troubles Away. This number has a feel of the musical Chicago in the dramatic way that the murder of film impresario William Desmond Taylor (Mark Inscoe) is handled.

Even though the show has a sad ending, the sound of most of the audience sniffing back the tears is a true sign of a strong emotional connection with the show and characters. What company could ask for more than that? Well, a standing ovation seems to fit the bill too and very well deserved for this hard working and talented cast.

Mack & Mabel runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 28 November.

Originally published by The Reviews Hub 25th October 2015


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