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Review: SOUTH PACIFIC, Sadler's Wells

Gina Beck and Julian Ovenden star in the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, in London for a limited summer engagement

Review: SOUTH PACIFIC, Sadler's Wells

Review: SOUTH PACIFIC, Sadler's Wells Last year's summer musical at Chichester Festival Theatre, Daniel Evans' production of South Pacific is now on tour - and it has currently set up camp in London for the summer.

The show is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific and made its Broadway debut in 1949; it is surprisingly progressive, despite its age, making it a relatively unproblematic revival. It also helps that it contains some of musical theatre's most recognisable songs, including "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair", "Some Enchanted Evening", and "There Is Nothing Like a Dame".

US Navy nurse Nellie Forbush is stationed on an island in the South Pacific, where she has recently met - and quickly fallen in love with - French plantation owner Emile de Becque. The couple know very little about each other but, despite some indecision on Nellie's part, soon get engaged - though their bond is tested when Emile's last secret is revealed. Elsewhere on the island, Seabee Luther Billis occupies his time by trying to make a quick buck and dreaming of visiting the neighbouring island of Bali Ha'i; the arrival of Lieutenant Joseph Cable finally makes those dreams come true, however there is also tragedy on the horizon.

This is quite a timely revival for the 2020s, in light of the events we have seen unfurl over the past two and a half years. Much of the show is about waiting for something big to happen - and finding ways of staving off the boredom; whether it's sewing grass skirts or putting together a Christmas variety show, while the island waits for war to call on them and then eventually return to normality, they become skilful at finding creative ways of keeping themselves amused and busy.

It also feels quite ahead of its time in some aspects of the story, with its defiantly anti-racist stance. "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" shows that, even back in the 1940s, people realised that prejudice is instilled in you by the people around you rather than it being something you're born with. It was a brave number for Rodgers and Hammerstein to include at the time, given the spread of destructive anti-Communist sentiments - and the way the UK is sleepwalking towards the far right, it feels like the kind of thing that would be censored by a Conservative government in the not-too-distant future.

There are still some troubling plot points for a 21st century eye, though the production handles them well. The most obvious is Cable's relationship with Liat, given that he devotes an entire song to how young she is ("Younger Than Springtime"), but scenes between the pair are sensitively portrayed by Rob Houchen and Sera Maehara, making it slightly more palatable. Liat's near wordlessness is compensated for in the form of movement and physicality - Maehara is beautifully expressive both with Houchen and alone.

South Pacific is a bit of a rarity, with its relative lack of big dance numbers; Ann Yee's choreography covers a few group routines, however many songs are quite static solos or duets - some bring to mind Shakespearean soliloquies being proclaimed to the audience. In these moments the size of the stage threatens to overwhelm individuals, but this is where the power and quality of their vocals really come into play.

This is perhaps most noticeable during Emile's numbers, as Julian Ovenden's operatic tenor fills the auditorium with ease. It produces one of the highlights of the night in "This Nearly Was Mine": the drama and raw emotion in that final note is guaranteed to bring a tear to even the most cold-hearted person's eyes.

Throughout the show, the contrast between his voice and the more typical musical theatre style employed by the rest of the cast is a neat way of marking another slight difference between Emile's world and Nellie's - though the way Gina Beck's voice melds with Ovenden's in their duets definitely hints at the new couple's compatibility.

It's a titanic effort from a large cast; Douggie McMeekin puts in a memorable performance as the chancer Luther Billis (his turn in "Honey Bun" is another standout moment), and Joanna Ampil is extraordinary as Bloody Mary - desperate to give her daughter a better life, and savvy enough to know how to go about it. Gina Beck perfectly captures Nellie's naïve and optimistic nature, endearing herself to the audience and crafting an incredibly lovable character - this makes it all the more shocking and uncomfortable when Nellie's prejudices are uncovered.

A true classic of the musical theatre form, and a production that will blow you away. The blend of drama and comedy works brilliantly, and the music is simply spine-tingling - a live performance from an excellent orchestra really makes all the difference. A perfect summer treat.

South Pacific is at Sadler's Wells until 28 August

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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