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  • Finian Hackett

Review: South Pacific given new lease of life in stunning Chichester revival

Chichester Festival Theatre has been a second home to me over the last 10 years. I have been fortunate enough to see many of their spellbinding productions including Imelda Staunton in Gypsy and Charlie Stemp in his breakout role as Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence. It is a wonderfully unique venue that has become one of the most prevalent production houses in the UK, with many of their shows heading to the West End (and in some cases, Broadway). This means that Chichester always has a reputation to uphold and you expect only the best when you arrive.

I was excited about heading to Chichester on what was a gorgeous Tuesday evening for the first time since November 2020 (when Daniel Evans and co had starred in a magnificent Sondheim concert). Not only was I back at a venue I love, but a full one at that! The last time I was sat in an auditorium that wasn't socially distanced was West Side Story in New York last March! The theatre was buzzing and the atmosphere electric. The fully masked auditorium were ready to be swept away to the South Pacific...

The 1949 musical South Pacific tells the story of two relationships - American nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush and her relationship with French plantation owner Emile De Becque, and the relationship between US marine Joseph Cable and a young Tonkinese woman named Liat. The whole show takes place on islands in and around, you guessed it, the South Pacific in World War II. Both romantic storylines are not plain sailing, with the show bringing issues with race right to the forefront. When the show first opened in 1949, it was seen as a very risky and bold move by the creative team.

Ensign Nellie Forbush is played by the wonderful Gina Beck. Nellie is a tough role to get to grips with. As a character, she seems kind and loving at the start but is ultimately a racist and really struggles with the fact that her lover De Becque has two Tonkinese children from his previous relationship with a Tonkinese woman. Beck takes on the multi-sided Nellie with great passion and vivacity - excelling in her many musical numbers. Her beautiful soprano tone is not too dissimilar to Broadway's Kelli O'Hara (who herself played Nellie back in 2008).

She is joined on stage by Julian Ovenden who brings gravitas to the role of Emile De Becque. Ovenden is no stranger to Rodgers and Hammerstein, having played Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music for ITV. Though his acting chops are some of the best I've seen in recent years, it's his voice that really made his performance for me. His rich vibrato soared over the auditorium, particularly in 'This Nearly Was Mine'.

Rob Houchen and Joanna Ampil both provide heartfelt performances as Joseph Cable and Bloody Mary respectively. Houchen has become one of the UK's most recognisable faces in musical theatre in recent years and that's for a reason. Cable is an emotive character and Houchen nails it - a superb performer. Ampil's Bloody Mary is probably my favourite performance of the night. Joanna says in the programme that "Bloody Mary was one of those roles I never thought I could play" but that the director, Daniel Evans, promised that she'd be seen in a new light compared to previous incarnations of the character. Despite many hilarious moments, Ampil captures the loving nature of Mary towards her daughter Liat and really shed a whole new light on the character.

Other notable mentions go to Sera Maehara as Liat (though she has few lines, she expresses herself beautifully through dance - a brilliant creative choice) and Olivier Award nominee Keir Charles as the sailor turned entrepreneur Luther Billis.

Let's not forget the awesome ensemble. The men performing 'There Is Nothin' Like A Dame' and the girls performing 'I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair' were the two standout musical numbers in the show - and I think the rest of the audience would agree judging by the reaction after each one! The show as a whole was fantastically cast - the strongest company I've seen in years.

One thing that Chichester always manages to get right is their production design. From real working on stage showers to spectacular sound design, every element fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Peter McKintosh designed the set and costumes with lighting by Howard Harrison, sound design by Paul Groothuis and video design by Gillian Tan. A whole host of other creatives contributed to many other elements including wigs, hair, makeup, props, dialect coaching and much more. One special mention should go to the music department specifically David Cullen and Theo Jamieson who provided some much needed revitalisation to the orchestrations!

South Pacific is one of those musicals that could easily become stale, long and very dull if done incorrectly but thanks to the combination of Daniel Evans' innovative direction and Ann Yee's joyful choreography the piece is slick, sharp and stimulating. Every detail from the subtle use of masks when entering through the auditorium to the impressive full stage revolve had been thought through and perfected.

It's very rare that I come out of a show and have nothing bad to say, but this is one of those times. Chichester Festival Theatre have once again produced an outstanding revival of an award winning classic. If you can't see the show in person, it is being streamed across 8 dates this summer and who knows, maybe we might see South Pacific make it's way into London's West End before the year is through (here's hoping!).


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