Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Director: Daniel Evans
Since its first performance in 1949, a few scant years after the events it depicts, South Pacific has entered the public consciousness so that few can be unfamiliar with at least the name – even if exposure might lately have been limited to Morecambe and Wise’s brilliant spoof of There is Nothing Like A Dame with newsreaders as the Seabees, or Captain Sensible’s 1982 version of Happy Talk. In fact, very nearly every song in South Pacific would go on to become a standard – if the word had been coined in 1949, maybe they’d have been called bangers.
Yet for all its musical beauty, South Pacific has a distinctly dark side as it confronts head-on the systemic racism that existed at that time in America – so much so that the show was condemned in some parts as being inspired by Moscow and touring versions struggled to book in the deep south.
At the centre we have two romances between people flung together by fate: local plantation owner Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden) and navy nurse Ensign Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck); and Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen) and Liat (Sera Maehara), a local girl and daughter of Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil), a local dealer in souvenirs and, frankly, tat.
de Becque and Forbush meet at a party and engage in a whirlwind romance. They seem to personify the notion that opposites attract: Forbush is a happy-go-lucky hick with a sunny disposition; de Becque is a plantation owner haunted by his past that led him to flee France and set up on the island. de Becque has a secret – before leaving France he stood up to and killed a bully. He explains to Nellie that the man deserved it and no one mourned him; and Nellie is able to accept that. But can their romance survive a further revelation? That the cute children at his plantation, the children who are half-Polynesian, are de Becque’s? Her well-taught racism makes her retreat, leaving de Becque to sadly conclude that This Nearly Was Mine.
Cable arrives on the island with the mission to land behind enemy lines to give the US Navy valuable intelligence on Japanese movements. With an eye on her daughter’s future, Bloody Mary introduces him to Liat and he is swiftly infatuated with her. But when Bloody Mary suggests he marry her, he feels he can’t because his family would not accept such a girl: as he sings bitterly, You Have To Be Carefully Taught to hate and to have such powerful prejudices. An especially powerful moment.
Light relief is brought by Luther Billis (Douggie McMeekin) an entrepreneurial Seabee, his antics always on the edge of legality.
South Pacific is nothing without its songs and in this production they are gloriously delivered. The voices of Ovenden and Beck soar, while Houchen’s tenor is a joy to hear. The voices all harmonise superbly, for example, in There Is Nothing Like A Dame the men’s voices blend perfectly. Standards come thick and fast – Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, A Cockeyed Optimist, Bali Ha’i, Happy Talk, the list goes on and on – all delivered to perfection.
Ovenden and Beck form a believable couple. Ovenden is suitably serious as de Becque, while Beck’s personality as the enthusiastic and sparky Forbush could light up the stage without the need for lighting. Houchen shows us Cable’s journey as he struggles with his growing love for Liat even as he continues to be the very model of a US Marine. Liat herself has to communicate largely through movement and dance as her character does not speak English, with the larger-than-life Bloody Mary speaking for her. While Maehara does an excellent job and her dance movements are fluid and well executed, this lack of dialogue does impede our empathy with the romance between her and Cable. Ampil brings Bloody Mary to glorious Technicolor life as she seeks to make a living from the sailors while looking out for Liat.
McMeekin’s Billis is a joy to watch. Filling the stage and stealing the scene every time he speaks, he provides a superb counterpoint to some of the more serious storylines.
Designer Peter McKintosh brings us an ingenious set: the background is largely monochrome corrugated iron that opens to let in, for example, de Becque’s home and stoop. Central to this is a revolve that director Daniel Evans makes extensive use of to give us different perspectives both literally – for example, when the nurses and Seabees put on a morale-boosting revue and we move effortlessly between its audience and backstage views – and metaphorically, as characters explore their feelings, for example when Nellie and de Becque sing the Twin Soliloquies.
Overall, South Pacific is a triumph, never losing its way as it treads the line between entertainment and social comment. Surely one of the year’s must-sees.
Runs Until 1 October 2022 and on tour