South Pacific

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, adapted from the novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A Michener
Chichester Festival Theatre
Festival Theatre, Chichester

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Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck as Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush Credit: Johan Persson
Sera Maehara as Liat Credit: Johan Persson

I set off with excitement, and a little trepidation, to attend my very first indoor theatre performance for a very long time. Would my phone behave itself and present the Track and Trace app when needed—likewise the e-ticket? Would the COVID precautions be enough to make me feel safe? I need not have worried. The theatre has done a splendid job separating the numerous 'bubbles' into seating which was well separated, entries were timed to avoid any crowded areas and hand sanitisers were very much in evidence. It must have been a nightmare to arrange but we very much appreciated their efforts, and the show actually began on time—something which is quite unusual in theatre.

The music alone could carry this show with some of the best songs ever written. "A Cockeyed Optimist", "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Younger than Springtime" to name just a few, every one is part of the story, every one a gem, and sung superbly especially by Gina Beck as Nellie, Julian Ovenden as Emile de Becque and Rob Houchen as Lt. Joseph Cable. The children, Ellie Chung as Ngana and Archer Brandon as Jerome, are adorable and charming with their rendition of "Dites Moi" and voices of all were confidant and strong—perhaps having to rehearse with visors might have had something to do with that.

Sentiment, hope, desperation, frustration, anger, prejudice and love are all represented in the lyrics, as well as a little humour, music all played superbly by a 15-piece orchestra under the baton of Cat Beveridge, and orchestration follows the mood of the lyrics, most particularly for "Bali Ha'i" where the arrangement has a mystical, dreamlike quality, drawing us in to share the magic of the moment. Ann Yee's choreography is also a triumph. The marines and seamen erupting onto the stage in a seemingly spontaneous riot of joyous freedom probably took hours of rehearsal, but was soon to be followed by "There is nothin' like a Dame" with the realisation of what is missing.

There are two love stories in this show, but love never did run smooth and the stumbling block for both is prejudice. "This is something that is born in you," says Nellie regretfully, finding that her beloved has two mixed-race children, but, "you have to be taught to hate and fear, to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade, you have to be carefully taught!"

Similarly, Lt. Joseph Cable finds himself in love with a Tonkinese girl but, due to his upbringing and his country's racist marriage laws, he cannot marry her. This happens to be the daughter of Bloody Mary, played with passion by Joanna Ampil, taking a journey from loud, brash, comical vulgarity to a mother in desperation, willing to do anything, even to the agonies of selling her daughter, to make sure she has a better life—a performance which goes from comedy to tearing at the heartstrings. Amazing!

Liat (Sera Maehara), the daughter, begins the show alone on stage with no words but beautiful, lyrical dance movements to convey her feelings, the show ending the same way—still alone.

I left the theatre feeling I had experienced something special. A wonderful song and dance story to be sure, but the undercurrent of ignorance and racial prejudice is strongly portrayed, and you have to wonder if it will ever be better. I think Daniel Evans's excellent production gives us hope.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor