REVIEW: Movie magic that is neither silent nor without colour

The early days of cinema were as pioneering as they were pressurised.

Rebecca LaChance and Michael Ball. Photo Manuel Harlan
Rebecca LaChance and Michael Ball. Photo Manuel Harlan

Stars of the silent screen and their producers experimented with every form of family entertainment that did not require the spoken word for effect.

Humour was the most enduring - a comedy rich in custard pie slapstick for visual effect - along with the blackest of villains, the sweetest of heroines, and the rescue of the latter from the former always just in the nick of time.

Mack Sennett was at the heart of this revolution. A producer born to make everyone laugh, except possibly himself, and who brought the world of Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle the timeless Keystone Kops.

Rebecca LaChance (Mabel), Michael Ball (Mack) and company. Photo Manuel Harlan

But the real enemies of these timeless celluloid two-reelers were not the actors who raced to tie girls to railway tracks and put babies through the mangle. They were the threats of talkies, changing public tastes, the lack of finance, and the relentless need to deliver new films at an unstoppable and prolific rate to an insatiable audience.

Mabel Normand was one of the greatest of these innocent silent beauties who won the heart of Sennett - despite drugs and drink consuming her while his cinematic obsessions meant he could never be wholly hers.

And Mack and Mabel recounts their glory days - the extremes of darkness and light; the black and the white - in a musical extravaganza that brings Michael Ball back to the Chichester stage.

It takes much to extract a standing ovation from the conservative Chichester audience, but on the opening night they had no such reservations.

This is simply so good, so slick, so flawless a theatrical jewel in every cut, that it dazzles.

From sets which show with a mere stroke of the brush a full train or an ocean liner to choreography that induces whoops of joy, Mack and Mabel has it all.

Rebecca LaChance takes us breathlessly through every stage of Mabel’s firefly existence. She could not be more perfectly and beautifully cast.

She is the perfect foil to Ball’s almost brutish and self-destructive Mack.

Ball himself, of course, reaches new heights in a show that cannot fail but take the West End by storm after its Chichester run.

And Jonathan Church, the theatre’s artistic director as well as director of this production, proves that his theatre has never been better, never more assured and confident, and never more able to exceed beyond wildest expectation.

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