On Tuesday evening I was transported back to 1940s wartime and life on the Pacific islands. The Chichester Festival Theatre’s revival of South Pacific has arrived at The Marlowe Theatre for a week, bringing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s trailblazing 1949 musical to Kent for five ‘enchanted evenings’. Prior to this week I had only seen one of the legendary theatre duos’ musicals in action (The Sound of Music), so I was very excited to have the opportunity to review more of their work. The musical is set on a majestic island in the ocean and the Marlowe certainly had island fever, with vibrant leis decorating the merchandise stand.
Thoughts on the story
Despite the musical being around for years, all I knew about South Pacific beforehand was the fact it was a love story set in World War II, and it featured the renowned song ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’. I went in completely unaware of what was to come, so it’s safe to say I was very emotional when I learned what the musical is about.
South Pacific uses the platform of theatre to challenge racial prejudices and stereotypes of the wartime period, providing an upsetting and transparent insight into historical beliefs about race, reflecting on the relationships between the Americans and the islanders.
The writers abruptly bring the underlying racism themes to a head at the end of act one, when Ensign Nellie Forbush reveals controversial thoughts about interracial relationships to her fiancé Emile de Becque. Emile is extremely hurt by these comments as his late wife and the mother of his children was Polynesian. The second act delves deeper into racial attitudes within the American population on the island and amplifies the importance of standing up against society’s racist attitudes. This message is conveyed through dialogue and song, specifically the poignant ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’.
South Pacific for the 21st century
Given many current political environments, the takeaway messages from South Pacific still rings true in today’s society. Director Daniel Evans clearly appreciates the importance of the source material, conveying the key themes throughout the 2 hours 30 mins run time (excluding interval), while also taking a very careful and considerate approach to the controversial character ‘Bloody Mary’.
Conscientiously played by Joanna Ampil, Mary is a lively Vietnamese woman who wears tribal face paint, speaks very little English and sells island souvenirs. She is an unfortunate stereotype of what people believed Pacific islanders to be like and thankfully Evans made changes to the role for 2022. The creative team dealt with the role of Mary with sensitivity, providing her with power against the seamen. She utilises the untrue perception of herself to personal benefit and makes more tourism money out of the sailors as a result. Later in the production she reveals her true identity as a mother, which is a leap away from the ‘Bloody Mary’ image that the American servicemen see.
Recreating the wartime era on stage
The creative team captured the essence of the era well, from the swing and military-inspired songs to the period costumes and muted colour palette of the navy base sets. The costume, hair and make-up departments provided Nellie and the nurses with pin curl hairstyles, uniforms and swimsuits appropriate for the time period, carefully recreating the image of wartime nurses. The navy men had their uniforms and the colours of the fabrics blended with the architecture of the military bases, which was a distinct contrast to ‘Bali Ha’i’ and the island scenes. Naturally, a completely different approach was adopted for the islanders, dressing them in subtle outfits that paid homage to and reflected upon the landscapes of their homeland.
‘Some Enchanted Evening’ was a charming number sung by Nellie and Emile. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an infectious dynamic on stage, which really came to light in their duets. The seamen of the ensemble created a rich wall of sound during the group numbers, almost chanting, and adding the spirit and discipline of the military through their tight harmonies. As with all Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the soloists were always backed by a rich orchestra, supporting the crisp vocals on stage.
A complex piece of classic theatre that was arguably way ahead of its time, this revival of South Pacific* was nothing like I expected. It has the glitz and glamour of Broadway, with its costumes, music and choreography, yet the plot is sincere and brings home important messages still relevant today. A thoughtful interpretation of the original that has been updated for present day attitudes, Daniel Evans and the creative team have produced a moving show that is a must-see for modern-day audiences. The musical is playing in Canterbury until Saturday 19th November, with tickets still available on the Marlowe’s website.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*My ticket and programme for South Pacific was gifted in exchange for a review of the performance.