Rogers and Hammerstein
Chichester Festival Theatre
Opera House, Manchester
July 16-23, 2022; 2hr 40min
Containing some of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most beautiful and memorable songs, Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of South Pacific opens its national tour at The Opera House in Manchester.
Set in the South Pacific during World War II, it’s a tale we’re familiar with as troops enliven their waiting and nursing hours with self-made entertainment and private enterprise. Men bemoan the absence of women (somehow ignoring the troupe of nurses), and a few people luckily find love. There’s much to celebrate, though inevitably there are barriers obstructing the path of true love,
This production opens with a beautiful dance by islander Liat (Sera Maehara), soon surrounded by a terrifying invasion as American forces occupy the island as a base for the war in the South Pacific.
Chichester’s Artistic Director Daniel Evans has given the show a modern sensibility, rewarding and amplifying the serious anti-racist messages of the original, and adding a more subtle statement on the continuing life and culture of the people who find themselves hosting, uninvited, someone else’s war.
The love story between Ensign Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck) and French planter Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) powers the story, supported by a second love story between Liat and Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen). Love is interspersed with the comedic character Seabee Luther Billis (Dougie McMeekin) a back-room opportunist with a heart. Think Sgt Bilko, if you’re old enough. This is all set within the navy macho culture, which has not been entirely modernised.
The ensemble singing on There is Nothing Like a Dame is beautifully controlled, the macho contained. But even with such clever direction, it’s impossible not to think of Morecambe and Wise (again, if you’re old enough).
The fact that Nellie Forbush is such an all-American, can-do force for good, makes the discovery of her racism all the more shocking, for the audience and for the character. She argues that her views are natural, a part of her. Cable’s passionate refutation, You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught, is stunning. Rogers and Hammerstein were encouraged to drop this from the show but refused – taking South Pacific to a higher level than most musicals, and ensuring its relevance 73 years later.
With songs of this quality and familiarity, there’s a danger they will overtake all, reducing the evening to a songbook. It’s almost impossible to avoid when Act 1 follows I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair with Some Enchanted Evening and I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy.
But the production moves on, and upwards. The show has stars: Ovenden and Beck, superb in the lead roles, are not alone. The set design and costumes sustain movement in a musical with very few dance numbers. Direction is sharp and the orchestra outstanding.
Everyone involved with this production delivers an outstanding evening.
Impressively, on the hottest Manchester day ever, even the air-conditioning was at its best.
Info and tickets here