South Pacific | Chichester Festival Theatre | Review
Returning to the theatre in this strange day and age was always going to be different with social distancing in place, but the team at Chichester Festival Theatre have done an amazing job at keeping people safe, with seating pleasantly spaced out and rigorous cleaning processes in place, I felt very reassured and comfortable being back in what is such a beautiful venue. And boy did they return in style with their latest Rogers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific.
The story is adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener, which is centred around the tales he collected while stationed with American troops on Espiritu Sant in Vanuatu, on their way to join the fight against the Japanese forces during World War II.
The production follows the journey of star-crossed lovers Emile de Becque (Julian Ovenden), a French plantation officer, and Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck), a navy nurse from Arkansas. But not all is what it seems as Emile has a history that greatly troubles Nellie when she later uncovers the truth about his mysterious past.
The show deals with complexities in love, the camaraderie of troops and nurses in the navy and confronts the challenging subject of racial prejudice; Oscar Hammerstein was well-known for his anti-racism campaigning, even since the early stages of his writing career. The show finds a fine balance between the serious undertones of the story, mixed with romance and humour, provided on many occasions by Officer Seeabe Luther Billis (Keir Charles) and islander Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil) who lead on pumping the comedic energy throughout the narrative respectively.
Ovenden’s emotional tenor and Beck’s clarion soprano fill the entire theatre with their mesmerising and powerful voices that was truly something special to experience. The audience were treated to recognisable numbers on numerous occasions such as Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair and Bali Ha’I.
The musical had everything you would want from a big stellar production; despite some minor contradictions within the story (such as how dismissive Emile is of his children when he speaks of the importance of love, but then charges into a life-threatening mission as soon as Nellie leaves). But the beautifully choreographed dance, myriad grand rotating sets, eclectic colourful costumes and exceptional operatic singing left me in awe; all mixed with the phenomenal live music performed by the band above the stage that lifted the audience into a standing ovation.
Originally scheduled for 2020, this production proves that absence makes the heart grow fonder, as it felt like every spectator and cast member involved was vastly appreciating each moment of the performance, showing it was well worth the wait. A must-see musical.
South Pacific runs at the Chichester Festival Theatre until Sunday 5 September 2021, with online streamed performances also available on various dates. Find out more at cft.org.uk.
Reviewer: Stephen Sheldrake