Michael Ball is loving the success of Mack & Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre

Olivier Award-winner Michael Ball pressed for the CFT to stage Sweeney Todd four years ago. The result was one of the most fulfilling productions he’s ever been involved in.

He’s hoping for similar success with Mack & Mabel which he’s championed for this year’s summer season (July 13-September 5).

Based on the true romance between Hollywood legends Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, Mack & Mabel received eight Tony Award nominations when it opened on Broadway in 1974. But somehow it hasn’t secured the status it should have done.

As Michael says: “I have always been curious how it never enjoyed the success it ought to have had. It has got the most brilliant musical score. It has got the most exciting true story behind it, an amazing story about when the cinema was being created.

“This guy Mack was one of the pioneers. He was an amazing character, and it’s the story of his love for Mabel, this big star he created. He fell in love with her, and she fell in love with him. His problem was his obsession with film-making…

“He is this incredibly-charismatic figure. He is a bully. He is driven. He is focused. He can be a bit of a b*stard like some people I have worked with.”

Oh yes, who?

“Like I am going to tell you!” Michael laughs. “I might want to work with them again! But he is just a fascinating powerful man. And he is very, very funny. He created the movie comedy. He gave Charlie Chaplin his start. He gave Fatty Arbuckle his start. All the great names we know are his creation. Cinema owes this man a huge debt, and this is his story.”

And yet there proved to be an obstacle between the show Mack & Mabel and the success Michael feels the show deserved.

“The show was a success on Broadway in 1974, but at the time people could not really accept the sad ending. They wanted a happy ending. Ever since, people have tried to thrust a happy ending on the show, and I just don’t think that works. I think the show works as it is. I want people to come along and to laugh, I want them to gawp at the spectacle of it all, and I want them to get involved with the characters and to feel for them.”

As for that ending, well, as Michael says: “You can’t reinvent someone’s life. But hell, think of the ending of Les Miserables! I think we can accept a sad ending now. I think audiences now are much more sophisticated in what they expect from the theatre.”

For Michael, it’s a happy return to the CFT after Sweeney Todd – “one of the greatest productions I have ever been involved in and one of the most fulfilling. It was very much new territory for me, and it was very well received. And working with Imelda (Staunton) is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But also working in Chichester is one of the most amazing spaces and so inspiring. It’s a place that makes you do your best and makes you be brave.

“But with Chichester, it is also just where it is,” Michael says. “It is such a beautiful city. On a lovely day, there is no finer place to be, to stand and have a drink. And the auditorium… the audiences are so close! You can see the whites of their eyes! And that raises your game. It’s also very interesting to play to three sides from the performance and design point of view. And I just love the atmosphere down there.”

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