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First Night: South Pacific, Barbican, London

South Pacific's magic is swept away on trip across Atlantic

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 24 August 2011 00:00 BST
Samantha Womack as Nellie Forbush
Samantha Womack as Nellie Forbush (NIGEL NORRINGTON)

"I'm stuck like a dope/With a thing called hope" sings the heroine. There's also a thing called hype, as we have been reminded by the breathless pre-publicity for Bartlett Sher's acclaimed staging of this classic 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

It ran for two years at New York's Lincoln Centre, won seven Tony Awards and has been recreated at the Barbican Centre, prior to a national tour. Does it live up to expectation?

Insufficiently, in my opinion. It's handsomely, if sparingly, designed and alluringly lit. Using the sumptuous original orchestrations, a 25-piece band does ravishing justice to the indestructible score. Just to hear them play those haunting first three notes of "Bali Ha'i" is to feel the risky, seductive pull of exotic otherness distilled to its shiver-inducing essence. But for all the talk of how the production draws out the darkness of the racial issues by reincorporating discarded material, this comes across as a highly accomplished, but faintly bland and traditional treatment.

With its documentary newsreel footage, hurtling jeeps and whizzing bullets, Trevor Nunn's 2001 National Theatre revival perhaps forced more realism on the show that it can bear, but there was no shortage of pent-up testosterone when his oil-stained, sex-starved "Seabees" launched into "There is Nothing Like a Dame". The amusing, well-drilled larking around of Sher's squad seems to lack hormonal spontaneity and balls.

That's not a charge you level against the superb Loretta Ables Sayre as Bloody Mary, the island's souvenir-seller. She plays her as a formidably fierce and calculating operator who would make Mother Courage quail and whose rendition of "Bali H'ai" sound like a creepily systematic sales pitch in the pimping of her 17-year-old daughter. Brazilian opera singer Paulo Szot brings his lovely burnished baritone and a rumpled romantic presence to the role of Emil de Becque, the lonely French planter whose wooing of young nurse Nellie Forbush is derailed when she recoils from the fact he has mixed-race children.

Former EastEnders star Samantha Womack makes an engagingly spirited and touching fist of this cock-eyed optimist's emotional journey from unexamined Little Rock bigotry to rueful self-awareness.

There's a delightful tongue-in-cheek impishness and air of sassy send-up to her performance of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" that suggest a latent independence of mind in this Nellie.

Unfortunately, there's next to no sexual chemistry between the two leading performers. That's symptomatic of a production that seems to have lost something in crossing the Atlantic and is deficient in that spark that turns respect into rapture.

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