Image courtesy of Darren Coutts.
The return of Rodger and Hammerstein’s beloved 1940’s classic, conducted under the direction of Edinburgh’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, was a typical representation of American post-war theatre: schmoozing, peppy and unapologetically camp. Yet for all its trimmings and displays of comically choreographed dance routines, The Church Hill Theatre was not blessed with a diverse and refreshing take on what can now be perceived as an avant-garde parade of questionable gender politics. Instead, South Pacific was relegated right back to where it has been floating for the past thirty years, cast into an ocean of irrelevance.
Despite its obvious datedness, the show’s live score provided a much needed respite from the gaudiness of the first and second acts; the smooth, orchestrated flow of popular melodies flooding the theatre with an ambience of ease and attentiveness, although this was occasionally at the expense of being able to hear dialogue taking place on stage. Nonetheless, The Gilbert and Sullivan Society worked well to showcase the talents of its cast, Fiona Main’s performance as Nellie ‘Knucklehead’ Forbush being a particular highlight. As the principal delight which seemed to be in constant supply, the actors’ light operatics elevated the production to a realm of authenticity, whilst the jingoism of group numbers animated the audience to the practice of toe-tapping and shoulder-shimmying.
The lead performers filled the stage with a sense of confidence and professionalism, helping to reduce the painfully flawed and implausible plot. That’s not to say that such implausibility is completely overlooked. The abrupt and ethically perplexing love stories provoke sentiments of disbelief and exasperated confusion rather than the conventional response of satisfaction. Primarily a fault of the acting, which generally failed to impress to the extent of the music, some characters suffered from stiffness and looks of sporadic discomfort. Furthermore, from time to time, the physical accoutrements of the performance seemed to take its toll on members of the chorus.
Particularly when contrasted with the use of polished props, costumes and backdrops, South Pacific’s shortcomings become increasingly apparent. There was nothing notably worthy of outrage or serious contempt; instead the pervading sentiment was pure indifference; a fog of dull pleasantness. It is difficult to ascertain, without having seen many different productions, whether or not this disappointment was a direct result of the original musical itself or this singular version, but it can be said with confidence that our modern world no longer correlates with the outmoded values of Rodger and Hammerstein’s vision. Racial controversies that are now arguably obsolete, set to the tune of blatant imperialism already leaves a somewhat sour taste without the need for yet another take. Despite its surface pleasures, South Pacific was largely unremarkable.