I must admit to having a soft spot for this musical. In 1958, when I was eight years old, it was the first film I went to see with both my mum and dad. My mum used to take me to the local flea pit every Wednesday evening for the early performance as she worked at Lewis’s department store and that was half-day closing so she would get home early. My dad worked away a lot so couldn’t join us which is what made the full family outing so memorable.
I remember thinking how long the film was but there are so many great songs that when I began to get bored I would be hit by another blockbuster. They had also thrown all of the modern technology at it, so it was in Technicolor, Panavision and Tod A-O. – don’t ask. All my dad could talk about was the exotic shot of Bali Ha’i but when I saw it years later on TV it was obvious that they had used coloured filters. They also used dark blue ones to replicate the night-time scenes as all the shadows were sharp as razors.
I realise that I am supposed to be writing about the stage production by the Chichester Festival Theatre but I couldn’t help drawing the comparison as I found this to be a show which also felt very dated. I believe the reason I feel this way is because, although it is set in the final days of World War 2 and it is in period dress, so should seem like a throwback, the style of acting, singing and dancing also appeared to be of that vintage. Performances have come a long way in the last 64 years, so I might be used to a little more sophistication.
An illustration of my theory is that the French accent of Julian Ovenden, as Emile de Becque, I thought very reminiscent of the Spanish tenor, Jose Carreras, and over-accentuated – for once, no pun intended – and seemed to me like generic South European.
It could just be the story, although parts of that were very adventurous for the period, dealing with racism head-on, whilst keeping just the right side of the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The original Broadway show opened in 1949 and the song You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught must have come close to the line as it expounds the idea that racism is not inbred but is something picked up from others. The producers did try to pressure Rodgers and Hammerstein into cutting it but, much to their credit, they refused.
The main crux of the narrative, is that of two love stories; one between a French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, who has two children from his marriage to his late Polynesian wife, and an American Ensign, Nellie Forbush, played by Gina Beck. The other is between US Serviceman Lieutenant Joseph Cable, Rob Houchen, and Liat, a Polynesian girl played by Sera Maehara. The South Pacific island on which the action takes place is not specifically named.
The rest of the show is taken up with the antics of the male and female service personnel who have been posted to the island before the war reaches that area, and the lengths they go to in order to relieve the boredom. It is not until later in the second half that the conflict strikes the area. As I said before, the songs are almost all classics and you can enjoy the evening for those alone.
Apart from the characters already named; Luther Billis, the wheeler dealer, played by Douggie McMeekin, who provides the comic relief, and Bloody Mary, Joanna Ampil, who is in charge of the island’s side of the black market, the show is an ensemble piece.
The singing and dancing were superb except for Gina Beck, who had trouble switching from her speaking voice to her singing voice. The two kept interchanging during certain songs. I think that this might be another clue to my original theory, in that most of the dialogue was shouted rather than spoken which led to a feeling of the piece being over-acted. This might have been done on purpose to evoke the stage shows of the year of my birth, but I would have preferred a little more subtlety. Even in the more raucous numbers such as There Is Nothing Like A Dame and Honey Bun, there is room for nuance.
The set was very inventive with the default setting being a bare stage with, what looked to be corrugated iron sheets to the back and sides. When props were introduced they appeared either by being lowered from the flies or wheeled on from the side. Some of them were huge but appeared effortlessly, and at the same time as the story was playing out. A large part of the stage was also able to revolve thus revealing the exteriors as well as the interiors, although it did call for some deft footwork from the actors at times.
With that one exception, I really enjoyed the show, which brought back the memories, although sadly, fish and chip shops don’t stay open as late as they did in 1958 so I couldn’t relive the post cinema experience.
South Pacific runs at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday, 5th November. For more information and to buy tickets please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/south-pacific/
Photographs by Johan Persson