South Pacific, Olivier Theatre, London

Intimate tale of US troops wins against cynical snipers

Rhoda Koenig
Thursday 13 December 2001 01:00

At a time when some of our ostensible best minds opine that America "had it coming'', and an optimist, cockeyed or otherwise, is someone who hasn't heard the news, what price South Pacific? Was Trevor Nunn the overly optimistic one for reviving the 1949 musical about troops waiting to go into action against "the Japs''?

Well, the verdict can be delivered in one letter: V. South Pacific doesn't overpower you, like My Fair Lady, with its glamour or brilliance – not only are Oscar Hammerstein's book and lyrics serviceable rather than witty; the production, on a smaller and shallower stage than the Lyttleton is far more modest.

But the greater intimacy of this show makes it more affecting: as the sensuous beauty of the island overpowers the American characters' conventional pieties, the show overcomes our own cynicism and knowingness.

It helps that Philip Quast's Emile is not a tall, God-like figure but a dumpy, rumpled one, consumed with worry that the American nurse Nellie Forbush will not return his love. And that Nellie's constant cheer has a slightly nervous quality to it.

To strengthen the atmosphere, Nunn had rearranged the story, he plunges us right into the restlessness of a quivering clutch of servicemen without occupation or dames.

The most prominent female is the fat souvenir-seller Bloody Mary, whom Sheila Francisco makes a real, full-blooded woman instead of the usual grinning cartoon.

Potential hazards are dealt with in style – the jingly "Happy Talk'' is now Bloody Mary's fervent plea for the lieutenant who has been sleeping with her daughter to marry the girl, pathetically painting the idyllic life they will have if he can conquer his race prejudice. The Lieutenant's song "Carefully Taught'' has been speeded up, making it more emotional and removing the stench of preachiness.

A fabulous cast includes Lauren Kennedy as a wonderfully brassy-tender Nellie, Edward Baker-Duly as the clean-cut, anguished Lieutenant, Nick Holder as a flabby, fast-talking small-time Sergeant Bilko, and the fine John Shrapnel as the humane but comically exasperated Commander of the island.

Nunn has reset Emile's great ballad "This Nearly Was Mine" to the island where he is making secret radio transmissions to the post. It seems a bit odd for him to be holding forth when he's supposed to be hiding from the Japanese, but all one can say is, if they don't hear him, that's their loss. As it will be yours if you miss this.

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