Theatre Mack and Mabel Piccadilly Theatre, London

`For all that its neglect has become a cause celebre, Mack and Mabel administers only intermittent pleasure jabs'
The chances are slim, I know, but should the theatre ever wish to hit us with a big-budget musical based on the life of Michael Ignatieff, then for the star role, we need look no further than America's Howard McGillin. He's got the hair, he's got the physique and the bone structure, and he has the same irritating, preppy look of sweetly agonised intellectual integrity. So what, you might ask, is this performer now doing centre- stage in the belated London premiere of the 1974 Jerry Herman musical, Mack and Mabel, where he's called upon to impersonate that doggedly anti- intellectual director of slapstick silent movies, Mack Sennett?

McGillin possesses a voice of terrific unforced range and power, if with little of the sort of personality and compelling oddness that elevates the singing of, say, Mandy Patinkin. To give meaning, though, to the story of the musical - which recounts how Sennett made a comedy star and bed- partner of a simple, New York deli hash-slinger, Mabel Normand, only to drive her to drugs and the arms of a pretentious rival through his career- driven blindness to her craving for love and professional respect - you need a performer who can suggest the character's dogmatic showman's coarseness as well as the reluctant sensitivity from which he is constantly on the run. You believe McGillin's Mack implicitly when he warbles, "I Won't Send Roses", that considerate, bittersweet warning to Mabel that he's too tunnel-visioned for a relationship, but when he sings of "Getting a bang / Out of lemon meringue / In the face" you feel like putting the claim to a practical test.

Though her make-up sometimes makes her look like the long-lost love child of Lily Savage, Caroline O'Connor has a great gutsy appeal as Mabel, an armour-plated, leather-tongued cartoon waif whose rip-roaring rendition of "Wherever He Ain't" is like two ritzily gloved fingers (or maybe one, given the country) shoved up in the air. For all, however, that its neglect has become a cause celebre among the buffs, Mack and Mabel administers only intermittent pleasure-jabs. Too many of the songs present you with the sound of Herman ripping himself off. The perky strut in "Look What Happened to Mabel" recalls the perky strut in "Elegance" from Hello Dolly!; and the chorus's hand-waggling, high-kicking climax to Mabel's return- to-her-old-studio number is a resounding re-treat of "Mame". Once again, Herman's thumbprint as a lyricist (more contractions than a woman in labour) can be seen in "From now on this pile of flesh'll / Be considered something special". A New Statesman parody (sung to the tune of "Mame") might run thus: "You can bet that Jerry Herman'll / Repeat that rhyme until it's terminal / We think you're just sensational / Jerry."

Paul Kerryson's staging has pizzazz, efficiency and the right kind of vulgarity, as it whisks you through the early part of the century from Brooklyn to the palm trees of Hollywood by train and ocean liner and through flashbacks. The wit of the silent-movie pastiches is a mite dismal, though (Mack and Mabel is no Singin' In the Rain), and Michael Smuin's humour- starved choreography is adamantly unsurprising (it's Kathryn Evans's singing that lights up "Tap Your Troubles Away"). Overall, quite good fun, but, to adapt the title of the best song: I Won't Throw Roses.

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