Review – South Pacific

Apr 4 2012 | By More

★★★★☆       Well-staged

Edinburgh Playhouse: Tue 3 – Sat 14 April 2012
Review by Thom Dibdin

The enchantment is in plentiful supply over an evening spent in the company of this touring revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 14 April.

Although it is not quite the Some Enchanted Evening sung about by Matthew Cammelle’s sophisticated French planter Emile de Becque in the perfectly measured opening scene – as he and Samantha Womack’s light-voiced Nellie Forbush recall their first romantic encounter just two weeks earlier.

Alex Ferns (Billis) and Samantha Womack (Nellie) with the Nurses. Photo: Simon Annand

Alex Ferns (Billis) and Samantha Womack (Nellie) with the Nurses. Photo: Simon Annand

It is an altogether darker kind of enchantment, and a more intriguing one, which pervades the whole piece. Or at least the first half, thanks to Loretta Ables Sayre’s interpretation of Bloody Mary, the native Islander who makes a living selling trinkets – of all kinds – to visitors.

Set in the early years of WW2, on a Pacific island where American Seabees are lodged waiting for their part in the war to start, the love story between middle-aged Emile and American Ensign Nellie is echoed by another between one Lieutenant Cable (Daniel Koek) and a native Island girl, Liat.

Both affairs are framed on the one side by the attempts of wastrel Seabee Luther Billis (Alex Ferns) to get his hands on authentic South Sea memorabilia – and on the other, by Cable’s attempts to persuade the civilian Emile to join him on a spying mission to an island well behind Japanese lines.

Bloody Mary at first appears to be just another comic sop to relieve the heightened emotion of Cammelle and Womack’s opening scene – when the teasing sexual tension between their characters all but bursts across the stage. And so she is for the subsequent couple of scenes – with Ferns in splendid form, leading off an energetic male chorus in There’s Nothing Like a Dame.

Tingles begin to form on the back of the neck…

It’s when Sayre is unleashed on Bali Ha’i that the tingles begin to form on the back of the neck. Here she is, selling the idea of a special island to Koek’s earnest but slightly underpowered Cable, who is all set for his mission to report back vital intelligence on shipping manoeuvres.

You can tell from the way Bloody Mary sings the island’s name, Bali Ha’i, that it is a hauntingly mysterious place which will entrap its every visitor. But there again, such is the strength of the production, as the different performers pick up the refrain, each succeeds in imbuing the words with their own character’s particular take on the place.

But it is Bloody Mary’s take that will prevail, as Cable succumbs to the island’s all-too youthful, human charms.

Which is all very well and mysterious – but it rather unbalances the production towards the relationship between Emile and Nellie. After all, it is their duet which opens the show and Emile’s brilliant five star rendition of This Nearly Was Mine, which is the high point of Act II.

Cable and Liat’s relationship never has the same importance to the structure. And director Bartlett Sher reduces it even further by giving a strong suggestion that Cable might be dallying in an underage liaison; while Elizabeth Chong’s portrayal of Liat is childlike and naive.

loveable cross-dressing

Which matters, because behind the show’s big hits, behind the loveable cross-dressing performance of Billis at the Thanksgiving Follies in Honey Bun and the soft-core eroticism of Nellie’s I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair shower-scene, South Pacific has a tilt at the knee-jerk racism endemic to American society.

The truth of Nellie’s attitudes come when she jilts Emile – not because she discovers he is a widower with two young children, but because she can’t accept the fact that their mother was an Island woman.

While Emile is distraught at the loss of his love, the refutation of Nellie’s belief that racism is hardwired into people from birth is left to Cable, with You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.

If Cable’s own position is mired with ambiguity, then, it makes his own taking of the moral high ground cary much less weight. Which instead of providing a new clarity to the production, just leaves the musical’s moral subtext as murky and unclear as it ever was – but in a slightly different manner to the usual.

That said, this is a slick, well-staged and thoroughly entertaining production – with enough standout moments to ensure a memorable night out.

Running time: 3 hours.
Run ends Saturday 14 April 2012
Shows: daily 7.30pm; matinees on Wed, Thurs 5, Sat at 2.30pm.
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