This is showbiz, and so the tale of Hollywood silent comedy mastermind Mack Sennett and his greatest comedienne Mabel Normand can be rewritten with a happy ending – in fact, with a number entitled "Happy Ending". In reality, by 1929 Normand was hospitalised with the tuberculosis which would kill her, rather than on the cusp of reuniting with her former lover and Svengali for one last, great feature. However, such revisionism is in keeping with the characterisation of Sennett in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's musical as a man for whom movies and life were indistinguishable: hitches or setbacks could be resolved either by inserting a flashback or going for a second take.
Every inch of Leicester artistic director Paul Kerryson's production is tailored to the West End, where it will arrive in November. Martin Johns' designs are exuberant and playful, whether representing the cheap but versatile sets of the Keystone movie magic-factory or what passes here for real life; at various points a railway carriage and an ocean liner appear on the stage. At one point one wonders why the floor-cloth in a Roman movie scene is so obviously wipe-clean, until the beginning of the obligatory custard-pie fight (a device which Normand is credited with originating).
A show set in movie-land is an obvious boon for big production numbers, be they a lengthy slapstick Keystone Kops sequence or a gratuitous massed tap performance; the biographical scenes, too, are infused with the same spirit, but nicely darkened at points of obvious climax by the insertion of a contrasting downbeat moment. Kerryson enjoys making it big and brash, but seldom views that as an end in itself. He also makes liberal use of projection: stills, mock-silents and a series of genuine Keystone clips including one of Sennett himself – noticeably more grey-haired than his stage incarnation – punctuate the dramatic action.
Caroline O'Connor is a delight as Mabel Normand, both when relishing fame and fortune and when suffering their attendant curses. Her skill at inhabiting a song contrasts with Howard McGillin, whose performance as Mack Sennett would benefit from more acting towards his onstage audience and less delivery straight out towards the upper circle. Granted, most of Mack's numbers are belters, but more often than not McGillin exceeds the limits of reasonable force; it would not be surprising if some of his show-stopping climaxes can already be heard in Shaftesbury Avenue, ninety miles away. He disciplines himself more during the major romantic duet "I Won't Send Roses", the show's most memorable tune (although run close by the good-time blare of "Look What Happened To Mabel" and "I Wanna Make The World Laugh").
Still, this is Mack's show. He carries the narration – almost invariably in spotlight on a darkened stage, which when employed even in mid-scene begins to grate. When even his beloved Mabel takes second place in this account, there is little more than a distinctly supporting role for the other principals, foremost amongst whom are Kathryn Evans' Lottie (also a little too ready to turn her controls up to 11) and a perfectly cast Philip Herbert as Fatty Arbuckle.
These are critics' criticisms, though; such chin-stroking reflections fail to obscure the fact that, rattling along as Mack And Mabel does, it goes down a storm. Kerryson is neither ashamed to be spectacular, nor too gung-ho to realise when to rein things in. By the time the show hits London, he will already be hard at work on the Haymarket's Christmas musical, Guys And Dolls; on this showing, that is a truly tantalising prospect.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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