Fortunately, the duo’s anti-racist message is brought to the fore in director Daniel Evans’ production, which ran at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2021 before transferring to Sadler’s Wells this summer. It’s not radical by any means, instead, it makes its points subtly, while showing how these prejudices – be they race-, gender-, age- or class-related – are still with us.
Gina Beck (Nellie) & Julian Ovenden (Emile) in Chichester Festival Theatre’s South Pacific. Photo: Johan Persson
Inspired by James A Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, the plot centres on the relationship between an American nurse, Nellie, and a middle-aged French plantation owner, Emile de Becque. The two fall in love with the speed that gives musicals a bad rap, and long before Emile tells Nellie about his two young children. When he does, she struggles to accept their mixed-race ethnicity. Also on the island and equally conflicted is US Marine lieutenant Joseph Cable, who has fallen in love with a young Tonkinese woman Liat, but fears the social consequences of marrying his Asian sweetheart.
Love isn’t the only trouble on these colonised shores either, there’s the deadly threat of Japan’s invasion keeping the US navy officers busy.
In Evans’ production, the story plays out on a relatively sparse stage designed by Peter McKintosh (the Olivier-winning Crazy for You), with Howard Harrison’s warm lighting flooding the stage from high windows either side, creating our sun-soaked beach. Against a corrugated iron backdrop, on which alternating visions of inky skies and silhouetted palm trees are painted, intricately designed set pieces including a functioning shower room and a flower-dotted veranda are wheeled on and off, lending the production a dose of naturalism.
Gina Beck 'Ensign Nellie Forbush' and Company. Photo: Johan Persson
It’s the leads that lend this production its gravitas. Seasoned musical star Gina Beck (Matilda, Wicked, Les Misérables) as all-American Nellie wraps us around her little finger as she does Navy Seabee Luther Billis (a hard-working and hugely entertaining Douggie McMeekin), before leaving us conflicted by her prejudices. Without compromising on the song's merriment, she injects just the necessary amount of irony into overly camp number I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy to ensure the audience chuckles with her, not at her, as she croons of being ‘as corny as Kansas in August’. Period drama favourite Julian Ovenden (Bridgerton, The Crown, Downton Abbey) as Emile reminds us he’s not only a terrific actor but an operatic soloist, moving the audience to whoop at his rendition of late number This Nearly Was Mine.
Further musical highlights here include a foot-stomping, testosterone-fuelled take on There’s Nothin’ Like a Dame, and a joyful sassy I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, with liberated, playful towel swinging thrown in for good measure.
Joanna Ampil 'Bloody Mary' and Rob Houchen 'Lieutenant Robert Cable'. Photo: Johan Persson
Evans’ production doesn’t shy away from the racial prejudices that stalk the play’s lovers, but it cleverly swerves moments of cultural appropriation that risk making South Pacific unpalatable today, in particular the sneering at local islander Bloody Mary (a fierce and headstrong Joanna Ampil). It highlights the fact the conversation around racism has moved on over the last 70 years, while reminding us these prejudices are still within society. Emile and Cable’s You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught is certainly still pertinent at a time when the UK can welcome white refugees from Ukraine but look to deport those from the Middle East, and footballers are still taking the knee before matches to remind crowds that racist abuse will not be tolerated.
Nothing about this South Pacific is overdone though; from its set to its performances and underlying anti-racist message, it's subtle and fine-tuned, and all the better for it.
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|South Pacific, Sadler’s Wells review
|Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN | MAP
27 Jul 22 – 28 Aug 22, Performances at 19:30pm with additional 2:30pm matinees
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