Life & Culture

Theatre review: South Pacific

The songs are great, but the story is hopelessly out of date


SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, , Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison, Chichester Festival Theatre, 2021, Credit: Johan Persson

A whiff of Freedom Day has arrived at this south coast venue a little early. Audiences are still social distancing and masks must still be worn, but the sight of a chorus line in full sail is a powerful reminder of how life has been inhibited by the pandemic.

As Daniel Evans’s Covid-delayed production proves, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s score will always deserve a regular outing. Yet the story which connects such eternal numbers as Some Enchanted Evening and Happy Talk strains under the weight of this show’s anti-racism virtue signalling. What was groundbreaking in 1949 is now heavy handed messaging.

Theatregoers of a certain generation will know that the Second World War plot, which is based on James A Michener’s Pulitzer-winning novel, centres on the deployment of American forces in the heavenly palm tree-populated Pacific atoll as they square up to the rampaging Japanese war machine.

With the help of Joshua Logan, Hammerstein does a decent job constructing a connecting narrative from Michener’s disparate stories. The hero is sophisticated French plantation owner and widower Emile (Julian Ovenden) who we learn left his country in a hurry after an altercation during which he killed a (bad, of course) man. The heroine is Nellie (Gina Beck) who embodies a wholesome all-American attitude to life. It is their whirlwind romance that anchors the evening. Most of the other characters are either thinly drawn or cartoonish forces personnel, though choreographer Ann Yee drills them into superbly synchronised chorus lines as sex starved sailors belt out There’s Nothing Like A Dame or lovelorn nurses twirl their towels while singing I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.

Yet despite Evans’s sure-footed direction there is something unintentionally comical in the way wholesome Nellie responds to widower Emile’s past. It is not his young, pretty children she objects to, but the fact that their mother had a different skin colour to their father. She almost throws up at the thought.

When Emile becomes a war hero her attitudes change of course. The show couldn’t survive if they didn’t. But whereas in 1949 it was possible to sympathise with her enlightenment, a process doubtless much of the audience had probably experienced, today Nellie’s world view is just too unforgivable for us to care about her rehabilitation. Not even the immensely likeable Ovenden and Beck can persuade us to care about her, and therefore their fate.

Evans’s production is clearly aware of all this. The idyllic Happy Talk is sung by the excellent Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary with a hurt born out of western racism. Rob Houchen’s clean cut Lieutenant Cable won’t marry her daughter for the same reason Nellie is disgusted by Emile’s past.

Doubtless fans of the show will enjoy it as much as they ever did. But it is hard to see how a new generation of theatregoers can see much relevance in today’s brand of bigotry. And so for all the skill and talent on display, the show unintentionally argues for future revivals to be concert performances without all the dated messaging and off-the-shelf romanticism.


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