This is not the first time Michael Ball has been energetically mounted in Chichester.  However, it may be the last as CFT director Jonathan Church leaves to head up the Sydney Theatre Company.

I find it’s not wise to visit regional theatre alone, so was able to ask a willing companion what she thought of the show: ‘pretty good for a repertory production’.  I was about to get all bristly and defensive on Chichester’s behalf but checked myself because – despite not having a resident cast – it IS really a repertory theatre in the sense that its same and loyal audience comes back time after time for its mostly-unvaried and pretty accessible productions.  As do quite a few telly-favourite actors, as well as directors, choreographers and designers.

Nowhere is this more true than at a matinee featuring Michael Ball where the old ladies line up outside the stage door in a phalanx of fifty or more, attention even he finds ‘strange’.

One of them nearly didn’t see the whole show though.

As soon as the lights went down, my white-cardiganed seventy-something seat neighbour began alternately ‘conducting’ and slapping her thighs not quite in time to the music, while humming along.  I whispered very gently ‘please try not to hum’ and she waited till the end of the overture before shoving her face right into mine and spitting ‘I’ll do what I damn well please’.  Stung, I retaliated with ‘not if you want to see the second half, you won’t’.

She was quieter during the rest of the act but I’m pleased to report that the house manager handled it brilliantly at interval, re-seating me somewhere far better and giving the old bat a stern talking-to and threat of expulsion.  It might sound firm, but you really cannot join in, even in an overture.

To be fair, humming along (silently) is probably the best you can do with Mack and Mabel.  As Torvill and Dean discovered when the crowd clapped along in Copenhagen in 1982, it has a catalogue of effortlessly enjoyable tunes: some of Jerry Herman’s best, some soundalikes from other shows (just listen back-to-back to ‘Whenever Mabel Comes in the Room’ and the title track to Hello, Dolly) but the book is a mess, there’s nowhere you can credibly locate the action other than a silent movie studio – as proved by Jon Driscoll’s anachronistic film-projected backdrops of a train absolutely ready for Dainty June to do her ‘Broadway’ routine from Gypsy and a cancerously-smoking transatlantic liner.

As for the two leads – he’s a boor and she’s a junkie and in this casting at least a generation apart – although Sennett was actually only twelve years older than Mabel Normand, Rebecca LaChance looks more like Ball’s daughter than a girlfriend.

La Chance – an American actress who understudied Katie Brayben in Beautiful – is good, although not any more noticeably good than Laura Pitt-Pulford who played Mabel in the chamber production at Southwark Playhouse and by now really deserves the sort of break a Chichester casting could give her.

As in Sweeney Todd four years ago on the same stage, Ball is almost unrecognisable – still carrying much of his Hairspray weight he makes a ponderous and un-agile Sennett, and his voice sounded occasionally tired -although he bends it expertly round the extended baritone part from the repeated low G’s in ‘I Won’t Send Roses’ to sustained top C’s and D’s.

Elsewhere, characters are ciphers: Anna-Jane Casey makes the very best of Lottie Ames as a chain-smoking wise-cracking soubrette and Jack Edwards is good as Fatty Arbuckle, even if the custard pie routine you can see coming a mile off is no better than a slosh scene in provincial pantomime.  Mark Inscoe turns in a suave performance as Sennett’s rival William Desmond Taylor, but coincidentally looks more like the handsome Sennett himself.  Presumably he’s also Ball’s cover and I hope he gets a chance at it on tour.

Chichester stalwart Stephen Mear saves the day with some terrific choreography which is where the company does come alive – but it also points up that the production numbers punctuate the action and the songs don’t drive the plot along.  Although there’s only one place you can take ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ he does it immaculately, and the Keystone Cops sequence ‘Hit ‘Em On The Head’ captures all the jolly infectious zaniness of American policemen on the receiving end of brutality, for a change.

Ultimately, it’s empty.  Not the fault of the theatre, the production, the cast or the composer – just too much tinkering with the book, most recently by original writer Michael Stewart’s widow Francine Pascal who thought it would be better that Mabel died publicly of her heroin overdose – principal symptoms smudged eyeliner and slatternly housecoat – than just walked out on Mack.

You’d never normally hear me praise Lloyd Webber but for a show about a tragic silent film heroine, Sunset Boulevard actually does it better.




Trivia (1):  Anna-Jane Casey played Mabel in the Watermill Theatre 2005 production opposite David Soul, although she was replaced by Janie Dee for the short West End run.

Trivia (2): in the 1981 UK premiere production at Nottingham Playhouse with first UK Sweeney Todd Denis Quilley as Mack Sennett, Mabel was played by Michael Ball’s Chichester Sweeney Todd co-star Imelda Staunton.