JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACK & MABEL at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and HAPPY HOUR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15.
Mack & Mabel 4 stars ****
Happy Hour 4 stars ****
THE STORY of the film industry in the United States is so dramatic in itself that it has inspired many fine stage shows; and none sadder or sweeter, than Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical Mack & Mabel, which chronicles the true-life romance between inspired silent movie director Mack Sennett – the man behind the Keystone Cops – and his delightful leading lady Mabel Normand, who, for a brief decade until 1918, lit up his films with her gorgeous comic presence. Their relationship was a complex one, constantly disrupted by Sennett’s obsession with movie-making at all costs; they never married, their working relationship eventually broke down, and Normand went on to die heartbreakingly young, at the age of 38, in 1930.
It’s a mark of the sophistication of the partnership between Herman and lyricist Michael Stewart, though, that their show never flinches from the darker aspects of the story, while also fully capturing the sheer exhilaration of the early days of the movie industry. In this touring Chichester Festival Theatre production, Michael Ball gives a terrific performance as Sennett, charismatic, moving and beautifully sung. Rebecca LaChance is a delightful Mabel Normand, and the 24-strong cast – backed by a 14-piece orchestra – sing and dance magnificently. And if songs like I Won’t Send Roses aren’t quite the normal fare of musical comedy, their fine melodic subtlety more than matches the story they tell; in a rare musical entirely made for grown-ups, and thoroughly enjoyed by them, too.
Despite its title, actress Anita Vettesse’s brilliantly assured debut play for the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season is another show in which unambiguous happiness is in short supply. The play is set in the back-room of a pub, the scene of a far-from-amicable meeting between recently widowed Anne, the wife of the pub’s late proprietor Jim, and her hopelessly spoiled daughter Kay, a Glasgow West End dilettante all too used to persuading her late Dad to finance her many vanity business projects.
They are soon joined by Kay’s brother Tom, who has fled his fractious family to become an aid worker in Africa; and with Jim also present in the form of his ashes, on the table in a shoebox, Anne proceeds to drop her bombshell announcement that she is not, after all, going to pass on the proceeds from the pub sale to her children, but intends to hang onto them and enjoy them herself.
If Tom seems indifferent to this news, though, it provokes an explosion of rage and desperation in Kay, whose current business is about to go bust; and for a scintillating 50 minutes, this ill-assorted family lay about one another in merciless style, eventually brawling so vehemently that poor Joe’s remains are scattered across the room. Anne Lacey, Hannah Donaldson and Stephen McCole give a terrific trio of performances, in this beautifully shaped family drama; and it comes laced with a surreal and bitter comic sharpness, in the writing, that announces the arrival of a major new talent, not to be ignored.
Mack & Mabel at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 21 November; Happy Hour at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.