â€œ Out of 1920s Hollywood, the classic musical Mack & Mabel tells the true love story of two of its greatest legends; director Mack Sennett Â“The King of ComedyÂ” and his star, Mabel Normand. â€ž
"Mack and Mabel" arrived in Manchester last week 'direct from the West End'. Now 'direct' turned out to be a bit of a misnomer unless the word has a meaning I'm unaware of (namely "via Bath, Southampton, Edinburgh and Darlington (wherever that is)") but the opening night 2-for-1 ticket offer proved too much temptation, even for a 'used' show, so along we went.
__ The Story __
Inspired by a true story, Mack and Mabel is based on the turbulent relationship between director Mack Sennett and deli-worker Mabel Normand, who, following a chance encounter at his studio, becomes Mack's leading lady. Set over a period of 1911 to 1930, the story is narrated by Mack through a series of flashbacks from the day of Mabel's discovery to her ultimate death. In between there is love, intrigue, jealousy and heartbreak - all the stereotypical ingredients in an old Hollywood story. The fact that this is inspired by true events doesn't have much of an impact on the show, as it is not a wholly accurate account of what happened between the two characters, and so many stories have a true event at their core anyway.
During its run in the USA the show received 8 Tony Award nominations, including one for the book. The book has been revised several times for the show, most notably by Francine Pascall who is best known for creating the Sweet Valley High / Twins / Kids saga.
__ The Production __
When Mack and Mabel was first produced in the USA it received mixed reviews, with one write-up commenting that "audiences don't want to invest 2 1/2 hours in a musical where the heroine dies tragically at the end". I'm not sure how that version lasted so long, because the song list remains the same in any production, and last night's show was under 2 hours long, including a lengthy 30 minute interval. Though on the short-side for musicals, this was actually quite welcome given that it was a 'school night' and it certainly didn't drag on the way some other shows did.
I saw the show at the Palace Theatre in Manchester which has a reasonably sized stage, but because of the way they have designed this production only a portion of the stage is utilized. They've turned a rectangle into a square and as such the sides are not used, with all the activity focussing on the centre. This means that unless you are sitting near the front of the stalls or the circle, the view can be limited unless you're sitting precisely in the centre and with only small people with sensible hair in front of you.
The production team seem to have picked up from somewhere that it's good to have a memorable feature in a show, and have chosen to use a curtain for this purpose. This ran the whole length of the stage, coming only about 2m up off the ground, and was made of a thin, floating, pale coloured material that allowed silhouettes to shine through with the right lighting. In addition, it was used as a screen for short portions of film to be shown on, I presume original ones from the real Mack Sennett. At first the curtain seemed novel, but the quirkiness of it soon ran thin and it became irritating as cast members were almost constantly pulling it across to portion off the back of the stage, then pulling it back again. I suppose it's no different than pulling a regular curtain or screen down to allow for a change of scene, but somehow their approach just became annoying.
A quirk of the show, as apposed to just this production, is the way the supporting cast members play instruments on stage throughout the numbers. It wasn't clear whether they also had support from a pitted orchestra, but I assume they did as their instruments were mainly of the violin / trombone / triangle variety. This made it more 'musical' than any other show I've seen, as the cast were clearly gifted instrumentalists as well as talented singers and dancers.
The cast were mainly unknown to me, with the exception of David Soul (Mack) who starred in the original version of 'Starsky and Hutch'.
__ The Music __
Due to the relatively small number of songs included in the musical, I feel it's not inappropriate to list them here.
Â· Movies Were Movies
Â· Look What Happened to Mabel
Â· Big Time
Â· I Won't Send Roses
Â· I Wanna Make the World Laugh
Â· Wherever He Ain't
Â· Hundreds of Girls
Â· When Mabel Comes In the Room
Â· My Heart Leaps Up
Â· Time Heals Everything
Â· Tap Your Troubles Away
Â· I Promised You a Happy Ending
The only one of these with which I was familiar was 'Tap Your Troubles Away' as this is a favoured number for song and dance routines for the under 10s at dancing festivals, but this was not unsurprising since I didn't know much about the musical before last night. The songs are all good, solid, musical ones though, the majority being up-beat and with a good rhythm, intersperced with a few slower, more heartfelt ones. Enjoyable accompanying music, but I don't feel the need to buy the soundtrack.
Supposedly when Torvill and Dean won their Olympic gold, they performed to the overture from the original cast album. The audience was so taken with it that album was re-released in the UK, and entered the charts at number #6 which was remarkable given it was a musical soundtrack, and even more so because it was 10 years old by that point.
__ The Verdict __
We enjoyed the experience of our night out at the theatre as much as the show itself. It was enjoyable, and very watchable, but it's not an outstanding story, an amazing cast or full of fabulous, catchy songs. Unlike many other musicals I doubt I will choose to see it again, but if I'd not gone this time I'd have wanted to anyway at some point in the future, so I'm glad we went. Certainly see it once, but aim for half price tickets (ours were Â£11.25 each in the end, for good circle seats) to ensure you don't feel the teensiest bit ripped off.
When Mabel turns up on the set of film-maker Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone Cops, she catches his eye and soon captures his heart. Before long, Mabel is bringing magic to the silver screen. Despite ambition, dalliance and changing times, this inimitable pair can never escape their undeniable love.