Sometimes when directors revive old plays you wonder why they've done it. Mack & Mabel, currently playing at Southwark Playhouse, is not a classic crying out to be brought back to life, though being about the early days of cinema it is rather on trend, what with all the The Artist hype of last year.
First staged in 1974, the show tells the story – based on real-life events – of silent movie director Mack Sennett and his turbulent romantic relationship with Mabel Normand, the deli-girl he makes a star. Music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman, best known for Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles.
In his rather defensive programme notes director Thom Southerland tells us, "Many people within the industry have tried to warn me off the show, suggesting that the script was unworkable, or the music too strong for the book." Unfortunately this criticism is pretty apt. It is true that Michael Stewart's original book has been revised by Sweet Valley High writer Francine Pascal, but the shape of the show – a clichéd trudging through the ups and downs of success and love – remains, and the songs and the book don't speak to each other in the way that you'd hope from a musical.
That said, there are some good tunes, and the singing is strong throughout. When the cast goes at it full pelt they put on a great show. It is a shame the sound isn't better, but the dingy vaults at Southwark Playhouse – decked out as a silent movie studio cluttered with props – are not the ideal venue for a musical. The live band is relayed through speakers and the cast are all miked, which in a fairly small venue can be distracting. I must say that my attention in the first half wandered.
However, the drama picks up in the second half, and then the show becomes what I'd hoped it would be: a musical about the movies, written, directed and performed with a love of this early period of movie-making. We meet a more well-roundEd Mack in this part too – one that doesn't shout all the time and who has earned his slow numbers.
The ingredients for a great show are mostly there, but Mack & Mabel lacks a lightness of touch. Musicals should make you laugh as well as cry, and this one isn't funny enough – something that Mack's song, I Wanna Make the World Laugh draws embarrassing attention too. The lyrics are rarely witty, with the exception of Hit 'em on the Head – a great title for a song that conjures up the days of early cinema comedy exactly, with lots of pratfalling and cops biffing each other.
But although they both have fine voices, neither Norman Bowman as Mack not Laura Pitt-Pulford as Mabel quite have the charisma to bring an emotional range to these interesting characters: the cynical workaholic and the poor girl propelled to sudden stardom. It is a shame because one of the show's strengths is how much time it spans, across the changing tides of success.
By contrast, Jessica Martin as Lottie is a pleasure to watch. She brings some wit to the stage throughout, culminating in a spectacular piece of musical theatre, Tap Your Troubles Away.
The choreography is a real highlight, transporting us to a period where men wore stripey cotton to the beach and women wore tassel fringes and not much else, but more of the good times of this different era in entertainment history would have got me on side from the start.