Review: South Pacific – Barbican Theatre

Awards can be a double-edged sword for productions. While the acclaim can boost box office sales, it does also set expectations high.

New York’s Lincoln Centre revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific swept the board at the Tony Awards and sold out in New York for over two years. Its transfer to the UK has become one of the most talked about productions of the year, partly because of the wallet stinging £85 top ticket price but, more genuinely, of the expectation of seeing a landmark production.

Sadly the hype and expectation is poorly satisfied in a lacklustre production that leaves more than a sense of disappointment.

Despite some superficial candyfloss upbeat numbers, South Pacific packs a much darker punch dealing with war and deep-rooted racism. There’s an undercurrent of innocence lost in this tale of US servicemen on a small South Pacific island during the Second World War. At the time it was controversial stuff, the war being a fresh memory and the overt racism of two leading characters a shock to the American consciousness. It is an epic tale in a vaunted epic production but, here, it seems stilted, lacklustre and in desperate need of an injection of energy, pace and soul.

Something seems to have gotten lost in the transatlantic transfer that makes it hard to reconcile the critical plaudits preceding it.

Director Bartlett Sher has gone for a highly traditional approach to the show. No radical reinterpretation here, just a straightforward run through. While such an approach does allow the musical genius of Rogers and Hammerstein to shine, it does rob the piece of any real emotional heart. The racial undertones are watered down and even the traditionally exuberant big song and dance numbers such as There is Nothing Like Dame and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair are robbed of much needed energy and showbiz pazazz.

Michael Yeargan’s designs also take the traditional path. Pieces of scenery are pushed on and off and a series of slatted blinds lower and rise to hide and reveal sections of the show. While it does allow the action to flow, the overall effect is flat and disappointing.

So, while the direction and staging disappoint the fatal blow is dealt by some idiosyncratic casting.

Two of the original Tony Award winning stars have transferred with the show, Paulo Szot and Loretta Ables Sayre as Emile de Becque and Bloody Mary and prove to be the two sole highlights in the evening.

Szot sings beautifully as de Becque, with his rendition of This Nearly Was Mine receiving by far the most rapturous response of the evening, while Ables Sayre provides a delightful Bloody Mary.

The UK additions to the cast however are more problematic. Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Cable can certainly sing but fails to give his character any real depth or convincing reason why local girl Liat would fall in love with him. There is no chemistry between Koek and Elizabeth Chong as Liat, making the tragic dénouement of their brief love affair a throwaway moment rather than the required emotional climax.

In the central role of nurse Nellie Forbush, sadly EastEnders actress Samantha Womack seems woefully miscast. Her portrayal of the character is paper thin at best with no emotional depth or conviction. Vocally Womack seems to battle with the score, delivering a thin rendition that, at times, struggles with the higher register and lacks the necessary power and punch to centre such a large production. Womack also fails to provide any believable emotional reasoning for her actions and, as such, sadly comes across as little than a walking, talking, singing mannequin.

In what seems to be a recurring theme, Womack and Szot lack any real chemistry that would define why the couple fall in love. Even to the defining strains of Some Enchanted Evening, the couple act like complete strangers wanting to keep each other at arm’s length. Indeed, during what is supposed to be a tear-inducing finale, the couple manage barely a handshake. Without a believable emotional heart this production is fatally flawed.

The normal caveats apply as technically this is a preview performance (although ticket prices are not reduced and no mention of preview is made in the advertising or tickets) ahead of official press night on August 23. However, with only one performance between this and the looming press night, the show is in desperate need of some work.

The show needs a vital injection of energy, the leads need to urgently develop some chemistry and overall characters need to be fleshed out to provide some believable depth and a realisation that this is a fully staged musical and not a concert rendition.

It is thankfully rare to see a show of this calibre in such bad shape, though it does go to show that despite the critical acclaim of the original it still takes considerable skill and hard work to replicate that success and on its current showing there’s still much work to do.

What should have been an enchanted evening falls flat as, without a convincing emotional hook, this South Pacific is adrift at sea.

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