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BrumHour saw South Pacific at the invite of The Alexandra.
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By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson
Review: South Pacific at The Alexandra
⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐Don’t Miss It!
Directed by Daniel Evans, Music, Book and Lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
In the world of art, an undeniable force compels love and war together. Heaven and hell mingle as the greatest of loves are tested by the threat of absolute catastrophe. No musical exemplifies this relationship like South Pacific: set on an idyllic island, where the US Military is locked in a fierce stalemate with Japanese forces amidst the Second World War.
Newly stationed on the island as a military nurse is Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck) who quickly falls in love with a Frenchman, Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden). After only a few weeks, the pair are besotted with each other, although Nellie worries that the pair are too different – she’s a hick from Arkansas and he’s a sophisticated European who reads Proust – leading to the transcendent number, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair. Emile’s devotion to Nellie stops him from agreeing to a request from the American army to help on a mission which could give the Allies an advantage over the Japanese. But when Nellie realises Julian has two children, born to a Polynesian mother who is now dead, her home-grown prejudices take root.
Then there’s the star-crossed love of Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen) who falls in love with Liat, the daughter of Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil) – the flirtatious, charismatic entrepreneur of the island, who wheedles money out of the American troops by selling them overpriced souvenirs to send home to their girlfriends. Cable and Nellie are two Americans very far from home, both built from the same poisoned bricks. Both are at war with themselves over the people they love.
There have been hard-fought debates about how far South Pacific is entrenched in these racial tensions, whether it is a dated product of its time, or whether it fights valiantly against these prejudices. Having only seen the Chichester Festival production, I can’t say for sure how previous shows have toed this line. Watching Nellie, as a white woman, showing visceral disgust at her lover’s mixed-race children, is a sickening sight, particularly in a post Black Lives Matter world which has laid bare the vicious racism behind a certain type of gentile white woman. But maybe that’s the point of this production. In this tour – which began in 2021, Britain was more aware than ever of its legacy of racism. A so-called heroine being presented as a racist shines a whole new light on the character, the show, and the white women that Nellie comes to represent.
Essays can and have been written on its themes and metaphors, but undeniably, this is a beauty of a production. A Rodgers and Hammerstein soundtrack is bound to delight, seduce, and enthral its audiences. No more so than during the now quite camp classic, There’s Nothing Like A Dame, when I could feel every cell in my body tingling with the need to get up and join in. I could have watched it over and over again. The song is ensemble work at its best, with each actor on stage pitch-perfect in portraying the all-consuming need of a sailor to see a woman. It was magical.
But the strength of the show rests in the stellar talents of its main performers. Ovenden is hopelessly endearing as a doting lover and a man who believes in the equal rights of all. His voice is utterly astounding, bringing the house down on more than one occasion. And his own rendition of Wash That Man is undeniably erotic, as he gently teases Nellie with her own song, undoing the buttons of his shirt to rub shampoo on his chest. Ovenden and Beck have incredible chemistry, which is the beating heart of the whole production. Beck excels as our flawed heroine, utterly captivating in her performance, which makes Nellie’s racism all the more difficult to stomach.
Houchen is excellent as Cable, revelatory in peeling back the layers of a military man to reveal an utterly vulnerable soul beneath. Douggie McMeekin is a comedic genius as Luther, the bumbling fool with one of the biggest hearts of them all. And Ampil steals the show as Bloody Mary, exuberant, sly, charismatic, and heartbroken. The stage could be filled with people but you’ll almost certainly be looking at her.
This is a seductive, propulsive show, that will ensnare you in its grasp and leave you reeling in its wake long after you’ve left the theatre. Don’t miss it.
South Pacific is at The Alexandra until Saturday 1st October 2022. The UK tour currently continues until 19th November 2022. See details here: southpacificshow.com/tour. Discover what is coming up at The Alexandra and book tickets using BrumHour’s affiliate link >> HERE <<.