Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s classic musical, first performed in 1949, is revived here in a touring production from Chichester Festival Theatre, which is handsomely mounted and features a thirty-strong cast. Peter McIntosh’s impressive set designs are built around a revolving stage and utilise atmospheric back projection, while tables, chairs and other props appear to float magically downwards from the heavens.
We are on a tropical island during the Second World War, where American troops are stationed in preparation for the coming conflict with Japanese invaders. The Tonkinese people of the island have learned to fit in with – and even profit from – their American visitors. Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil, whose ethereal voice is a highlight of the piece) now runs a flourishing trade in grass skirts, which the troops buy as souvenirs to send back to their families. Meanwhile, long-time resident and plantation owner, Emil de Beque (Julian Ovenden), has been romancing naïve young ensign, Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck), and impulsively proposes to her. She’s all for the idea of marriage – until she discovers that Emile has two children and that his deceased wife was Tonkinese – or ‘coloured’ as she puts it.
The audible gasps of discomfort from the audience at this point are a reminder that South Pacific is very much of its time. There’s been no attempt to adapt the piece for more contemporary audiences. Of course, the message is supposed to be anti-racist – the point is addressed in a song by Lt Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen), who points out that bigotry is handed down through the generations, learned rather than innate – but a contemporary lens might also look upon the exotic ceremonies carried out on the sacred island of Bali Hai as ‘othering’, and wonder why there’s no concern about the unequal relationship between the white plantation owner and his native servants.
Musically, this production has plenty to offer – there’s a fine live orchestra providing sumptuous backing to Divenden’s powerful, almost operatic voice. There are Liat (Sera Maehara)’s elegant dance moves; she seems, at times, to virtually float across the stage. Dougie McMeekin offers nicely-judged comic relief as wheeler-dealer, Luther Billis. And, of course there’s a whole clutch of classic songs, recognisable even to an audience who may not be familiar with the musical itself. The production’s most rousing moments are when the ensemble is belting out spirited pieces such as ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,’ or ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.’
If South Pacific has shortcomings they lie in the script, which was originally adapted from a series of short stories by James A Michener. The plodding storyline sometimes feels disconcertingly pedestrian – and too often, we’re fobbed off by being told about something that’s happened offstage, rather than actually being shown it. The final ‘action’ set piece, built around a jungle skirmish, feels particularly sketchy, and the death of an important character is carelessly thrown away.
Still, there’s plenty to like here and judging by the exuberant cheers that greet the final curtain, there are many in tonight’s audience who are thrilled by this trip down memory lane.