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Susan Elkin reviews: South Pacific

Show: South Pacific

Society: Chichester Festival Theatre (professional)

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre, Oaklands Way, Chichester

Credits: Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ by James A. Michener.

Type: Sardines

Author: Susan Elkin

Performence Date: 13/07/2021

South Pacific

Susan Elkin | 14 Jul 2021 18:04pm

Photo: Gina Beck (Nellie), Julian Ovenden (Emile) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s SOUTH PACIFIC. Photo: Johan Persson


Well it certainly was Some Enchanted Evening. The press night audience applauded loudly and at length as soon as the lights went down, so delighted were they to be – at last – in a real theatre for a much-loved old favourite.

But  there’s nothing clichéd about this production. Tt is different from the first note. As a fine fifteen piece band, high above the stage out of sight, conducted by MD Cat Beveridge, launches into Richard Rodgers’s evocatively scored overture, we watch an otherworldly solo ballet sequence by Sera Maehara alone on the big round thrust stage. Then she is surrounded by American GIs, marching. It’s a neat way of signalling the serious and dark cultural clash which lies at the heart of this ever topical piece.

Daniel Evans, Chichester Festival Theatre’s artistic director and director of this show, is a man of many talents – one of which is making vivid spectacular use of CFT’s capacious playing space and exploiting its revolve to maximum effect. The opening sequence was just one example of that.

Full as it is of hummable melodies, South Pacific is a profoundly political piece and this production brings that out: Racism and the need to overcome it is, if anything, more urgent now even than it was in 1949. Of course you can’t dismiss a man (or wash him right out of your hair) simply because his late partner was Polynesian. And despite, their need to repel the invading Japanese, what right have these Americans to be in this ocean paradise anyway – criticising local people and their culture?

Julian Ovenden is the best Emile I’ve ever seen. He is self-effacing, charming, attractive and, clearly, an attentive father. And that voice! No wonder his “This nearly was mine” – mellifluous, beautifully balanced and richly warm – won a massive round of applause of press night. Gina Beck is a lively match, shifting convincingly from loving to critical and from embarrassed to contrite. Her account of “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” is, as ever, an all singing, all dancing show stopper although I always think of Mary Martin in the original Broadway production who famously washed her hair for real on stage hundreds of time. Beck dances with a shampoo bottle and then ducks in the shower for a few drips. Radio mics (and health and safety?) have a lot to answer for.

The support cast is strong too with Joanna Ampil standing out as Bloody Mary and Keir Charles bringing oodles of character to Luther Billis. It’s good to see something which a large cast too and I note that several are recent ArtsEd graduates which is good news all round.

This sensitive show is much enhanced by Peter McKintosh’s set which consists of one hydraulically controlled balcony platform to represent Emile’s house and a series of push-on units to change scenes.

All in all a pretty remarkable achievement considering the circumstances under which this production has developed. It was originally scheduled but 2020 but had to be cancelled. Rehearsals have had to be masked and distant – and CFT has conducted 27,000 Covid tests in the making of it.

This review was first published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/south-pacific-7/

Author information
Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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