Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mack & Mabel [Winston Churchill Hall, Ruislip]

This was a production by the Wembley Operatic Society, so not a West End super-production, although Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip is a surprisingly large theatre that would appear to be a secret to almost everyone but the locals.

I should also confess that my friend - and the Muse of this blog, Dr Carrie Dunn, was in it as part of the chorus - so that's all my biases up front.

I have to say I enjoyed myself. I'm not sure Mack & Mabel is one of the great musicals. The story, which is based on the true story of the 'it's complicated' relationship between silent movie director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, a silent movie star. It's a bumpy ride with an unhappy ending, although productions sometimes end with the song 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' and avoid a discussion of the real events.

You could - if you were so inclined - make 'I Promise You A Happy Ending' drip with irony. I'm a sucker for that kind of thing so it is a good job I'm not a director of musical theatre. You can see also why I incline to opera with all its long, dark dying. But, I digress.

Director, Debbie Day, does a fine job with the production though. Not just by getting the best out of her cast but with some of the additional touches - such a silent movie 'clips' etc.

Hang on...I need to go back to the musical itself. I think its problem is it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. This is a subject I think Sondheim would do more justice to perhaps. It's part celebration of silent comedy Hollywood and a mockery of its growing artistic pretentions - see  'I Wanna Make The World Laugh', 'Hundreds of Girls' and 'Hit 'Em On The Head' - for that. And part tragic love story - 'I Won't Send Roses', 'When Mabel Comes Into The Room' and 'Time Heals Everything' but it can't quite decide whether to go down one route or the other.

When I was a lad and the world was in black and white they used to show silent comedy's on the main television channels so I was familiar with Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. the Keystone Cops etc, which makes me sympathetic to that side of the story. I must have seen films with Mabel Normand in as she worked with Chaplin. Indeed, Chaplin's Tramp makes his debut in a Normand film 'Mabel's Strange Predicament' (1914)

The story of Mack and Mabel themselves is a messy one and Normand's life was a short-ish and scandal-filled one. It's the combination of that and the Hollywood story that makes this tonally odd.

However, the weakness of the musical itself, which had a bumpy ride on its original debut in 1974 shouldn't take anything away from this fun production. And I think fun is how you have to make your final judgements on these things. Did I enjoy myself? Yes, I did.

Carl Quaif is great as Mack Sennett and seems to be enjoying himself immensely. I loved Susan Smith as Mabel. The rest of the cast did a fine job too. Steve Benn's Fatty Arbuckle being a personal favourite.

So, this production has finished now but the Wembley Operatic Society (and societies like it) could always do with support. Their next production is 'Anything Goes' in November at the Winston Churchill Hall in Ruislip.