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South Pacific (Sadler's Wells Theatre)

(seen at the afternoon preview performance on 30th July 2022)

With a shocking jolt and double-checking of its archive, the monkey realised suddenly that (wait for it...) it actually had never seen a professional stage production of “South Pacific”! The psychedelically coloured movie, countless times, but staged? It seems to have missed every opportunity by a mile – really, enough to join the England football penalty takers.

This production is enough to make it over-compensate by taking up residence in the theatre at least once a week for the length of the run.

Inside Peter McKintosh’s magnificent military hanger set, Ann Yee creates choreographic magic. Introducing a strong dance element apparently absent in previous productions, Yee should win every dance award possible for two gut-wrenchingly moving sequences which bookend the show. Tone and pace set in what looks like effortless manner but of course take creativity to new heights.

A tone-deaf article in the programme suggests that director Daniel Evans considers Ensign Nellie Forbush to be racist. Used in the pejorative manner now, “cancelled”. Fortunately, his direction – or sensible trust in the material – is considerably more careful on stage. 

We conclude very safely that she is actually just a girl / woman from a homogenous small US town and typical of her era. “Taught to be Afraid”. Had the message been communicated as clearly as it is today, we know she would have heard it and reacted as most people try and do.

Gina Beck scores a triumph in the role, encompassing every aspect of its emotional sweep. Strong independent woman with her lover, dealing with her army duties (and the men who lust after her), and achieving an ultimate redemption. With a wonderful ensemble, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” is a triumph, “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” a solo smash.

As lover Emile, Julian Ovenden stops the show and sets tissues flying with “This Nearly Was Mine.” No surprise having convinced us a couple of hours earlier of it being “Some Enchanted Evening.”

Speaking of enchanted, his children Ngana and Jerome (Sigrid Szeto-Sandberg and Thomas Bilsland at this performance) are more than cuteness, they are very real young people with important things to do and say in the show.

The triangle of Bloody Mary, daughter Lilat and Lt Joseph Cable (Joanna Ampil, Sera Maehara and Rob Houchen) is a beautiful sub-plot. Ampil is far from the gorgon of the movie version, brusque entrepreneur truly wanting only the best for her daughter. “Happy Talk” becomes a hymn of aspiration in Ampil’s strong musical theatre performing hands.

Maehara steals the show with her balletic ability and is no slouch in the acting stakes. Houchen’s few scenes are a personal showcase of emotional development having the audience waiting in anticipation to follow his story.

The biggest discovery for the monkey is that the movie “Stewpot” character is here a nicely sketched but tiny role for Antoine Murray-Straughan. The storyline of the local army base “Bilko” falls to a character called Luther Bilis. Douggie McMeekin, a dead-ringer for James Corden, is the hard-working shirker with a finger in every pie he’ll sell you for a few dollars - and a real comedic talent.

Backed by a large cast of equally talented artistes, from the shores of an invaded island we are swept through villas, camps, offices and caught forever on shores far overseas with brave men and women fighting for fear of the consequences. In Sadler’s Wells we share that sense of comradery and determination, longing, hope, fear, dread and every other emotion.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has often said that he considers “South Pacific” the greatest musical yet written. The monkey has always countered with “Carousel” and “The King And I.” Now, it had to concede the Phantom Cat Superstar probably has a point.

The monkey is in love, is in love, is in love, is in love, is in love with this wonderful show. One Sixty One minutes of fun adding up to one enchanted evening.

5 stars, standing ovation.

Photo credit: Johan Persson. Used by kind permission.

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