South Pacific in Chichester – review

I’m In Love With A Wonderful Production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s anti-racist musical


★★★★★

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson
Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific. Photo credit: Johan Persson

I don’t think it was simply my euphoria at being back in a theatre but this Chichester Festival Theatre production of Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific filled me with joy.

South Pacific was written in 1949 before Rodgers and Hammerstein settled into their, and their audience’s, comfort zone. It has all the features of the best of their work, features they in fact pioneered. One being the use of songs that reveal character and feeling and move the story on- take the many different ways, and therefore implications, in which Some Enchanted Evening is sung at various points. As was their way, the composers packed this musical with the most wonderful songs: A Cockeyed Optimist, There Is Nothing Like A Dame, Bali Ha’i, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, Younger Than Springtime, Happy Talk– these songs are part of our DNA.

Another feature is realism, seen both in the characters’ behaviour and Hammerstein’s down-to-earth lyrics. Top marks to director Daniel Evans for keeping this production so grounded in reality.

But what makes South Pacific stand out is that Oscar Hammerstein II was determined to face racism head-on in this musical. You’ll remember that it’s set on a Pacific island during the second world war where American GIs and nurses interact with local people, a nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, a lieutenant with a local girl. There may be effervescent melodies from Rodgers that fill you with warmth but there is also a story that pits love against hate, love at first undermined by acquired racial prejudice before it finally triumphs. At a time, following England’s Euro final, when we have been reminded of the overt racism that still shames our country, it was uplifting to experience this powerful anti-racist musical.

I cannot fault this production. Daniel Evans has done justice to the seriousness that underlies the musical’s ‘cock-eyed optimism’. It feels like the perfect tribute to the passionately anti-racist Oscar Hammerstein. Happy Talk is no throwaway comic song here but a poignant moment of desperation.

And the director is supported by an excellent cast and creative team.

The two leads Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck are superb in voice and acting ability. Ovenden as Emile the plantation owner, conveys both an overflowing heart and a broken heart with equal conviction. Beck also runs a range of emotions as naive Nellie Forbush from Little Rock but is never better than in I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy which overflows with almost child-like exuberance.  (From August, Alex Young will be sharing and then taking over the role of Nellie, because Gina Beck is pregnant.)

Others also deserve a mention. Joanna Ampil as a believably vulnerable Bloody Mary below the tough exterior. Of the GIs, Rob Houchen as Lieutenant Cable has a beautiful tenor voice which is more than a match for the soaring heights of Younger Than Springtime, and Keir Charles stands out as the scheming but ultimately compassionate Luther Billis. One of the qualities of this musical is seeing the Americans’ wide-eyed confidence come up against the realities of racism and war.

Julien Ovenden & Gina Beck in South Pacific Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Gina Beck and cast in South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson

The choreography by Ann Yee is magnificent. Sometimes she fills the stage with exhilarating choruses- in a scene that Busby Berkeley would have been proud of, the women take to the showers while Washing That Man Right Outta their Hair. Then there are the quiet moments, like the beautiful solo ballet by Sera Maehara that opens and closes the show.

The see-through revolving wooden sets by Peter McKintosh set the mood of Pacific island life, while leaving the stage open for the big numbers.

And I can’t forget the superb orchestra led by Cat Beveridge featuring the original score with some new orchestration from David Cullen. The glimpses of repeated melodies throughout the show do exactly what a musical should do, evoke complex feelings that words can’t express.

A word of praise for Chichester Festival Theatre who were terrifically well organised and made us feel safe to be back in the theatre. And from the rousing cheer that greeted the first moments, I’d say we were all pretty pleased to be there.

South Pacific is performing at Chichester Festival Theatre from 5 July to 5 September 2021. Performances will be streamed on 4, 9, 14, 18, 21, 26 and 31 August and 3 September.

Click here to watch Paul’s review on YouTube

This Is My Family – review

Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines


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Production photo of James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
James Nesbitt, Scott Folan, Kirsty MacLaren & Clare Burt in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.

This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.

Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.

Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.

Production photo of Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
Sheila Hancock in This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.

Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.

At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.

James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.

Production photo of This Is My Family at Chichester Festival Theatre in May 2019
This Is My Family. Photo: Johan Persson

The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.

In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.

This Is My Family is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 15 June 2019. Click here for tickets

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

Note: Minor changes made on 17 May 2019 to the order of the paragraphs and to the spelling of Clare Burt’s name and the title of Our Ladies OF Perpetual Succour.

Flowers For Mrs Harris – Chichester – Review

A few blooms but no bouquet for a dull production

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Production photo of Clare Burt in Flower For Mrs Harris at Chichester
Clare Burt in Flower For Mrs Harris at Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson

Flowers for Mrs Harris, a musical based on a Paul Gallico story and directed by Daniel Evans, is set in East London just after the end of the second world war. In a world of rationing and drabness, Mrs Harris has a dream of owning a Christian Dior dress. She goes about achieving this, mainly by being nice to people and bringing out the niceness in them.

Click here to see the review of Flowers For Mrs Harris on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

There are set backs along the way but they are easily resolved within minutes. I think this is the essence of why I didn’t enjoy this musical. There is no grit, no tension, no sense that this won’t have (spoiler alert!) a happy ending.

Flowers for Mrs Harris at Chichester. Photo: Johan Persson

Richard Taylor’s opera-style sung-through music is unmemorable.  To complete a dull presentation, the sets are grey. Even when we relocate to Paris for the second act, they offer hardly anything in the way of scenery or dynamic changes to delight the eye. Only the Dior dresses and of course flowers provide colour, which I guess is designer Lez Brotherston’s point but you have to wait quite a while for those.

And just because it’s a musical, don’t expect any dancing.

On the plus side, there are some good characters well acted by a strong cast that includes Claire Machin, Joanna Riding and Gary Wilmot and especially Clare Burt who is brilliant as the self effacing, resilient Mrs Harris.

I admit I did feel like a miserable git when I saw people around me crying at the end.

Flowers For Mrs Harris can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 29 September 2018

Here’s the One Minute Theatre Reviews video on YouTube-