South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells review: Barely puts a foot, or a note, wrong

·3-min read
South Pacific at Sadler’s Wells review: Barely puts a foot, or a note, wrong

This ravishingly simple staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contentious 1949 show barely puts a foot, or a note, wrong. Originally mounted in Chichester last year by Daniel Evans, a skillful finesser of old musicals, the production celebrates the lush score and clarifies the script’s attitude to race and exploitation.

Yes, the twin love stories at its heart are simplistic, and the characterisation sometimes thin, but it’s hard to resist the rolling sweep of this romance that shifts from breezy comedy to a moving depiction of wartime heroism. The hits – Some Enchanted Evening, There is Nothing Like a Dame, a show-stopping rendition of This Nearly Was Mine – just keep coming.

It’s 1943 and American forces are vying with the Japanese for control of the Pacific. Becalmed without action on one island outpost, the US troops’ thoughts turn to romance. Arkansas-born Ensign Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck) falls for older French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) despite his murky past, while the men yearn for the nubile Tonkinese women of neighbouring Bali Ha’i. Local matriarch Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil) sees business opportunities in the occupying force, including an advantageous match for her young daughter Liat (Sera Maehara) in young lieutenant Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen).

The sense of white superiority implicit in the story – and explicit in Nellie’s recoil from Emile’s half-Polynesian children – is clearly condemned in Cable’s You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, explaining how unprejudiced children are forced to learn “before you are six or seven or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate”.

 (Johan Persson)
(Johan Persson)

The grooming of Liat is more problematic, but Evans and choreographer Ann Yee create an elegant physical language for the character, and give her expressive opening and closing dance routines. She’s given status, if not agency. In a neat touch, these moments recall the ballet interludes that were a feature of musicals until Rodgers and Hammerstein decided not to include one in this work, believing its realistic setting was inappropriate. Elsewhere, Yee’s choreography is loose and exuberant, particularly on I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair (the song features the phrase “cancel him”. An example of cancel culture from 73 years ago, perhaps?)

Ovenden brings a wonderful depth and richness to Emile’s songs, while Beck is a bright, breezy Nellie, necessarily superficial but with a voice like a bell. Ampil brings an edge of pathos to the pidgin-English Happy Talk, and shares the comic honours with Douggie McMeekin, winningly rogueish as the camp’s fixer Luther Billis. Houchen is terrific as the callow but steadfast Cable.

Things get deadly serious in the hurried second half, and Evans and Yee present a moving montage of nurses and pilots writing farewell letters, then falling in battle. Peter McKintosh’s stripped-down, corrugated iron backdrop displays dazzling sunsets and romantic moonlit nights, before opening to reveal the stark profile of a warplane. Everything here is in service to the story and score. A revelation.

Sadler’s Wells to August 28;

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