REVIEW: Chichester's South Pacific: brave, bold and brilliant

South Pacific, Chichester Festival Theatre, until September 5.
Gina Beck and Julian in South Pacific. Photo by Johan PerssonGina Beck and Julian in South Pacific. Photo by Johan Persson
Gina Beck and Julian in South Pacific. Photo by Johan Persson

Is this the most significant production in Chichester Festival Theatre’s history? It certainly feels that way.

Twice I have covered come-back shows as the CFT has stumbled back from the brink of bankruptcy long years ago.

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But this feels even more special, a confident, resurgent theatre reasserting itself after a global pandemic which has floored us all.

So let’s pray that South Pacific doesn’t prove a hostage to fortune. Who knows whether Covid isn’t ultimately going to have the final word this time round as well.

But for the moment – and long may that moment last – this is the CFT at its best, finally delivering the production which CFT artistic director Daniel Evans clung to amid the wreckage of last year, delivering it now as the confident statement he’d longed for.

It might still feel as if we are on a knife edge, but Chichester Festival Theatre is back. Powerfully, poignantly and brilliantly back.

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And encouragingly it really didn’t take long until it seemed as if watching a massive musical in the company of hundreds of people was, once again, the most natural thing in the world.

And what a production it is, with a huge amount to relish, director Daniel Evans masterminding the most sumptuous pictures on a set which is surprisingly simple. The big, big numbers hit you exactly how you’d hope they would, the familiarity of the great classics actually adding to their impact after so long away.

But maybe the real treasure in the show is Gina Beck’s wonderfully-expressive performance as Nellie Forbush, the navy nurse from Arkansas intent on adventure and falling head over heels in a love she’s not sure she can trust – for all the wrong reasons.

Beck (clearly flourishing in her pregnancy) makes Nellie’s shock at her shock discovery shocking in itself – chilling in fact in a week in which we’ve seen abysmal abuse on the back of a few missed penalties.

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Emile and Cable (Julian Ovenden and Rob Houchen) combine powerfully to tell us that racism is something that has to be taught (and therefore can be avoided). If only that were true. The ghastly aftermath of the Euros final makes such thinking seem decidedly wishful.

And that’s another of the great attractions of the show: it’s most definitely a show with something to say, and it is said brilliantly and provocatively across the cast.

Ovenden captures perfectly Emile’s mystery as the man with the dodgy past; Keir Charles is great fun as the chancer Luther finding ways to survive; and Houchen’s Cable combines decency with courage.

Elsewhere there are certainly subplots which really don’t sit easily in 2021. In some ways, it’s a musical far easier to admire than to like.

But you’ve got to love the spirit with which Daniel Evans delivers it, bold, brave and beautiful.