Review | South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre: 'The performances run gorgeous riot'

I’ve always thought that Rodgers and Hammerstein did themselves no favours by the inclusion of a jolly tune or two.

Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 9:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th July 2021, 9:56 am
The company of South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, summer 2021. Picture by Johan Persson
The company of South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, summer 2021. Picture by Johan Persson

Their big musicals are all on dark themes: murder and rape in Oklahoma!; wife-beating in Carousel; the rise of Nazism in The Sound of Music and – topically – racism in South Pacific

The new version of South Pacific currently ruling the roost at the Chichester Festival Theatre does much to restore the balance. The musical arrangements are darker; the staging emphasises division (no doubt helped by social distancing) and the performances run gorgeous riot.

Joanna Ampil is a very different Bloody Mary. Exit the bright, breezy, chirpy, cheery matron and enter a rather beautiful, totally Machiavellian woman, determined to set her daughter up with an American. You get the feeling she’d stop at nothing, absolutely nothing to do it, too. Her rendition of the normally cheesy Happy Talk is – permit me the cliché – a revelation. Totally different to any version I’ve heard before, yet still cleverly true to the text, her performance is excellent.

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South Pacific at Chichester Festival Theatre, summer 2021. Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary), Sera Maehara (Liat) & Rob Houchen (Joe Cable). Picture by Johan Persson

Rob Houchen’s vocals as Joe Cable are sublime and his dour delivery adds some lovely comedy to the part, again revised from the usual Cable. This Cable is staid and humourless, making his falling for Bloody Mary’s daughter all the more unlikely and, therefore, all the more interesting.

Julian Ovenden as Emil de Becque (Oh, that voice!) and Gina Beck as Nellie Forbush are, quite simply, superb. Excellently paired, they make the unlikely romance between the older French plantation-owner and the navy nurse from the Southern States real. The genius of Beck’s performance shows, in particular, at the end of the first act; you’ve grown to love this woman, to think no ill of her and enjoy her company and then – suddenly – the slap of her blinding racism. This is no-punches-pulled stuff; I distinctly went off our Nellie at that point. I’m not entirely certain that by the end of the second act she’d wholly redeemed herself and if this were a deliberate directorial choice by Daniel Evans – all power to him! Yes, they’re back together, but…

The ensemble work is joyous – although the girls out-sing and out-dance the lads; watch out for I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair and I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy both of which lift you skywards.

Chichester Festival is back – witness the whoops as the lights went down – and it’s well worth a visit for this.

Until September 5.