Drill Hall Arts Centre, London WC1
Opened 12 December, 1995

A few years ago, it was impossible to move around London in December without coming across a pantomime sponsored by Cadbury's. This year the main Christmas presence seems to be director Phil Willmott; he is at the helm of Treasure Island at the Mermaid and sinking his teeth into Dracula in Battersea besides being commander-in-chief of the Drill Hall's seasonal Rodgers & Hammerstein operation.

The city's main gay and lesbian performance venue is aiming for crossover appeal this Christmas, with the consequence that South Pacific is not as thunderously camp as might be expected. True, one couplet in "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair" is re-allocated to one of the male troops, and a drag chorus-line later appears complete with the base commander as the Statue of Liberty; but in general the temptation, for instance, to go for an all-out Village People-style staging of "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" has been resisted.

What remains is a cheap and mostly cheerful visual presentation, with primary musical strengths in the form of Patti Boulaye and Peter Polycarpou. Boulaye plays the island huckster Bloody Mary with sly relish, but at times (most notably on the choruses of "Happy Talk") her voice is a touch too powerful. Polycarpou, as planter Emile de Becque, shows greater vocal control (as befits a former Lloyd Webber Phantom), delivering "Some Enchanted Evening" almost in an undertone, though his spoken accent occasionally sounds more Iranian than French. Christopher Howard is likewise on top of his role as Lt Joe Cable, and Joanna Maddison makes a good but not great professional debut as Nellie Forbush.

Realising that high-gloss production values are out of their reach, Willmott and his cohorts have tried to make a virtue of necessity. Liz Putland's scaffolding-and-drapes set is functional rather than ravishing, and choreographer Jack Gunn opts for the illusion of spontaneous exuberance by individuals instead of tightly drilled uniformity.

The most ill-advised element of the production, however, is Willmott's attempt to cast shadows of "ugliness and racism... the real war in the Pacific" over a straightforward 1949 Broadway musical. Interpolated voice-over passages aim to set the island action in the context of the war as a whole, but are at best unnecessary and at worst prone to rash over-simplification themselves; the claim that Hiroshima "marked the end of the war for the Japanese" might be disputed, not least by the citizens of Nagasaki, as the audience is assaulted with blinding light to signify the atomic blast.

Rodgers & Hammerstein shows are really not the most fertile grounds for socio-historical revisionism. Luckily, there are not enough of these touches to unbalance the production which, by and large, does a solid if unspectacular job. Besides which, the prospect of large numbers of grannies visiting the Drill Hall is an impishly delicious one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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