A classic returns to London for a limited run this month as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s timeless South Pacific pitches up at Sadlers Well as part of a UK tour. Since its Broadway debut in 1949, it has been revived time and time again with multiple productions on both stage and screen. This latest version was first seen last year at Chichester Festival Theatre. One of my favourite shows of 2021, future life for the show I referred to as “theatre perfection” felt inevitable. But could it recreate that magic again this year?
Set on an island in the (you guessed it) South Pacific during World War II, it is at its very heart a love story between an American nurse and a Frenchman, while a US marine and a Tonkinese woman have their own love story. More serious themes play out alongside this, with racial prejudice being featured – a theme that is sadly still all too relevant more than 70 years after the show was written.
A truly incredible cast have been assembled to bring this classic story to life. Julian Ovenden is perfectly charming as Emile de Becque, revealing the jaw-dropping talent that has made him so admired through his career in a truly sensational singing voice. Gina Beck is terrific as Ensign Nellie Forbush, bringing the kind of stage presence that demands all eyes are on her whenever she is on stage, even when she is in the background. Together, the pair have a gorgeous chemistry that has you rooting for the pair… even when one of their characters ends up fairly questionable.
Rob Houchen has a comparatively small part as Lt Joseph Cable, but his relatively brief stage time is nothing if not memorable, though the story that his character goes through isn’t completely satisfying. Douggie McMeekin gives a wonderfully comic turn as Luther Billis but perhaps the standout goes to Joanna Ampil who is completely mesmerising as Bloody Mary. Showcasing a mix of comic and emotive acting, she is a marvel to watch – even better than she was last year, and proves herself time and time again to be a force of nature.
You would expect some incredible songs from a Rodgers & Hammerstein show and South Pacific has no shortage of them. ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’ and ‘I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy’ are just some of the instantly recognisable numbers. The nature of the lyrics of ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’ may prove uncomfortable to watch, but are performed with skill and complexity from Rob Houchen, while Joanna Ampil delivered an emotional and understated performance on ‘Happy Talk’. The undoubted vocal highlight of the evening came from Julian Ovenden on a showstopping ‘This Nearly Was Mine’.
These beautiful songs sound as stunning now as I imagine they did when they were first heard, with a ridiculously talented orchestra accompanying the cast perfectly. The classic nature and expert performance of these numbers ensures that when the music soars, so does your heart – the kind of show that can make you clutch your heart with glee while giving you goosebumps, they truly elicited one of the greatest sounds you will hear on a London stage.
The set design from Peter Mckintosh has been adapted for this latest version, following a similarly gorgeous design at Chichester last year. Though the cast no longer move around the audience so a sense of intimacy is lost, new additions allow a grander set and a fantastic use of props. Directed by Daniel Evans, the action is always incredible to watch, with phenomenal choreography from Ann Yee really setting the stage alight, particularly on the group numbers. The timeless ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ is gloriously staged in one of the most joyous numbers you are likely to see on stage this year. Lighting from Howard Harrison bathes the cast and the stage with its versatile but always beautiful design.
South Pacific has been adored for generations now with last years production winning over a whole new audience (myself included). This is how a classic should be staged, with the most iconic elements present, and some new tricks to make audiences of all ages fall in love with it. A truly incredible cast and some fabulous staging are worthy companions of the gorgeous songs and the show itself, making this feel both fresh and timeless. A complete joy to watch, this really was an enchanted evening.
South Pacific plays at Sadler’s Wells until August 28th. It then continues its UK tour with dates and tickets at www.southpacificshow.com
Photos by Johan Persson