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

All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson & Lily James

All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at the Noel Coward Theatre London

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Watch the YouTube review of All About Eve here

You may well know the story. After all, the film All About Eve is a classic. Scripted by Joseph L Mankiewicz, it tells of a young would-be actor who ingratiates herself into the inner circle of an ageing stage star in order to further her career. If you’re not familiar with the story, be ready for surprises and twists.

Production shot of Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by ivo van Hove at Noel Coward theatre London
Lily James & Gillian Anderson in All about Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The first thing to say is the two leads are mesmerising. It’s worth the ticket price just for their performances. Gillian Anderson as the established and talented Margo Channing conveys the insecurity behind her diva facade that eventually brings out awful behaviour. Lily James as Eve turns on a penny from disingenuous devotion to cold eyed viciousness.


At which theatre can I see All About Eve?

Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0JP until 11 May 2019. Booking line: 0844 871 7629    Website: https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/phoenix-theatre

Who directed All About Eve?

Ivo Van Hove

Who stars in All About Eve?

Gillian Anderson and Lily James


Add to that, a performance of great subtlety from Monica Dolan as Margo’s kindly but naïve friend Karen. Her hysterical laughter during a dinner is hilarious.

Also outstanding in a great cast are Julian Ovenden as Margo’s egocentric but loving partner Bill, Sheila Reid as Margo’s devoted but worldly wise Birdie and Stanley Townsend as the monstrous power-abusing critic Addison DeWitt.

Production shot of Julian Ovenden and Gillian Anderson in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Julian Ovenden & Gillian Anderson in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

The production cleverly puts Margo dead centre, because, although the title is All About Eve, the play is much more about Margo, her coming to terms with getting older, her considering her position as a woman in society, and her fears about losing her younger partner. So Margo herself, the great star, is the centre of attention. Anything that happens that doesn’t involve her nearly always takes place off or to the side of the stage.

In this respect the set by Jan Versweyveld does a great job. Her room is the main set and her dressing table is right in the middle. Beyond the main set, we can see the backstage and wings.  Above there are giant video screens that convey live what is happening in these areas.  

Production shot of Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson and Monica Dolan in All About Eve directed by Ivo Van Hove at Noel Coward Theatre London
Sheila Reid, Gillian Anderson & Monica Dolan in All About Eve. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

I didn’t like so much was seeing close ups of the people off stage. For me, the joy of theatre is its human scale. I saw no reason why these scenes shown on the screens shouldn’t be acted on the stage, maybe off centre.

There are occasions when the screens add to our understanding. There’s a camera in the mirror so we can see her face with all its middle aged details that the theatre audience can’t see. And there’s a great moment when the reflection of her face ages before our eyes.

A View From The Bridge at Young Vic was one of the best nights of pure theatre I’ve ever had, so I will always think of Ivo Van Hove as a great theatre director but sadly I have to say that, if he likes big screens so much, it’s time he went to Hollywood.

All About Eve is performing at the Noel Coward theatre until 11 May 2019