Chichester Festival Theatre have got a reputation for their summer shows. Recent titles have included Half A Sixpence and Fiddler On The Roof - both of which enjoyed successful transfers to the West End. This years offering is a new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's timeless classic South Pacific.
Originally due to play last year, the show proves good things come to those who wait as it is the centrepoint of their 2021 season. First appearing on Broadway in 1949, it has proves its endurance being revived time and time again, last appearing in the West End in 2001.
South Pacific tells the story of an American nurse, a Frenchman, a US marine and a Tonkinese woman who all find themselves on an island in the South Pacific in the middle of World War II. Through their interactions, we see clashes of cultures play out, sometimes to the extent of racism - a theme that sadly is still all too relevant more than 70 years after the show first premiered.
Some heavyweight performers have been assembled for this new production. Julian Ovenden excels as Emile de Becque, channelling every ounce of emotion and range he can to deliver a masterclass performance, and performing one of the standouts of the night with a stunning rendition of 'This Nearly Was Mine'. The woman he falls in love with, Nellie Forbush, is played by the wonderful Gina Beck. If Beck was an impressive performer in the past, the fact she is doing this demanding role while pregnant is a testament to how incredible she really is. Never missing a beat, she is a tour de force in this production.
Rob Houchen brings his beautiful vocal to the role of Joseph Cable, a US marine who forms the other love story of the show. Through gentle, at times understated acting and a heavenly voice, he is fantastic in the role. Perhaps the standout performance of the whole evening comes from Joanna Ampil as Bloody Mary - the very definition of a scene-stealer. Often hilarious, sometimes vulnerable, she is always captivating in what is truly one of the greatest characterisations I have ever seen on a stage.
This wouldn't be a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical without some classic songs and what a bunch we have here. Ampil delivers a beautiful rendition of 'Happy Talk', Julian Ovenden's 'Some Enchanted Evening' gives the song the gravitas it deserves, 'There Is Nothin' Like A Dame' is one of the best ensemble numbers you are sure to see in any stage musical, while 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair' features joyous staging full of water and shampoo - let's just hope no mics were damaged in the process.
A great story and wonderful performances would be enough to make this production of South Pacific an amazing show. However, what elevates it to something far more special than that is its staging. Expertly directed by Daniel Evans, the production takes place on a huge revolve that creates a sense of intimacy and gives 360 views all around the theatre, it features a great use of props, special effects and flawless use of lighting and sound to really immerse you in the experience. From the moment cast members descend on to the stage from the ceiling, you know you are in for a treat. The quality set that early on never lowers and what follows is a relentless couple of hours of theatre magic which will leave your jaw firmly on the floor.
I have been lucky enough to see some truly incredible musicals over the years. The Chichester Festival Theatre production of South Pacific is up there with the best of them. One of the theatre highlights of 2021, this magic makes the theatre drought we have all suffered this last year feel almost worth it, if only to appreciate how special this really is. The cast, music and unique staging bring this show up to God tier status, creating a moment that can only be described as pure theatre perfection. Don't be surprised if this production follows some of the theatres predecessors to a West End run. If it does, prepare to be amazed.
South Pacific plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until September 5th with several performances streamed online. Tickets available from https://www.cft.org.uk/