The Olivier Theatre is a huge round stage with a revolve in the middle. It is big enough to easily drive a jeep around the perimeter. The central revolve has 3 or 4 palm trees / stumps permanently set, around which the sets and props are set to create the various locations throughout the story. The back drop was of various scenic locations, sometime Bali Hai, other times the open blue sea. The lighting was excellent creating the changing moods and time to the piece. There was never any confusion as to where you were or what time. I don’t usually comment on lighting but I did feel this was exceptional. John Napier’s design is in a way quite simplistic in that Emile’s house is tables and a French window shutter fly lowered down, using jeeps to maintain the military feel, Luther’s varying business enterprises (laundries and showers), the military headquarters, Mary’s hut etc…. create the sense of space on the stage without ever overcrowding or leave the feeling of wanting more to capture the spirit of the scene. Scene changes are swift and effective by the cast as with a turn of the revolve we have moved to another time and another place.
Philip Quast is fabulous as Emile. He has a loveable dishevelled look about him but this gives you an instant knowledge that his Emile has spent many years at his own leisure without having to impress or please anyone else. He is a man who has lived the apparent idyllic life away from civilisation and only when he meets Nellie does he realise that there is something missing form his life. Philip shows all sides of Emile from the potentially violent man who has to catch himself when Nellie’s rebuke brings him to a passionate anger, to the heartbroken man who falls to his knees weeping when Nellie refuses to accept who his first wife was. The role has two of the big ballads, Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly was Mine and he sang them beautifully, with such feeling and heart yet the softness of the first 'Enchanting Evening' is contrasted with his rousing ‘Never let her go’ at the end of act 1.
Nellie is a character who I normally find too good and sweet that she can be too much but Lauren Kennedy’s Nellie has boundless energy and her Nellie is charming, naïve, innocent and outwardly so bubbly that you can understand how both Emile and Luther fall for her. The girl from ‘Small’rock learns a big lesson in life on the island which questions all she has been brought up to believe. She made Nellie’s songs ‘Cockeyed Optimist' and 'Wonderful Guy' naturally fit her character. There was a real chemistry between Philip and Lauren and her emotions ranged within seconds from the joyous to devastation as the perfect evening ends in a revelation which rocks her views to the core when she learns of Emile’s children. That scene was excellent. As Emile pleaded with her to listen she babbled on about nothing whilst anxiously trying to leave the house so Emile could not touch her. As she ran away he shouted in anger and passion ‘I love you’. Also the scene after the show where Nellie tells Emile that she cannot marry him despite loving him and leaves it to Joe to explain their upbringing, Emile is on his knees heartbroken that she has run away from him again. This leads into his discussion with Joe Cable and his decision to help the Americans.
I really liked Edward Baker-Duly’s Joe Cable. He carried the character well with that clean cut American boy image and as with Nellie he learnt a heard lesson in his own bigotry and only realises too late that what he wanted was more important than what his family may think, but of course he never gets to tell Liat this. The connection between Joe and Nellie was the most pronounced I have seen in any production. He worked very well with Elaine Tan as Liat and also with the other men as the 'leutellant’. He has a light tenor voice which fitted a song such as 'Younger than Springtime' and 'My Girl Back Home'. The only time it could have been more powerful was with the sequence with Philip starting with ’You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. The ‘killing of Joe’ effect was excellent, as he was gunned down by a plane the shot marks were seen travelling along the floor and right through him.
Liat might not say much but the sweetness and charm speak volumes. Elaine Tan was a lovely portrayal of Liat. She had the innocence but also the ability to make Cable fall for her despite a few broken words in French. Happy Talk which usually has Liat telling a story with her hands was more Bloody Mary & her showing Joe what life he would have with them. The scene where Nellie tells Bloody Mary that Cable is dead is very moving as Nellie hugs Liat saying ‘oh my poor child’ she looks at Bloody Mary and whispers ‘he’s dead’ and as Bloody Mary tells Liat ‘Il est mort’ she collapses in anguish.
Sheila Francisco is an excellent Bloody Mary. Her cheerful and cheeky exterior lulling the sailors into believing they can manipulate her when in fact she is a shrewd businesswoman and no one gets one over her. At the end of the day her main concern is for Liat and her happiness. Her lilting and mesmerising Bali Hai woos Cable to the island.
Nick Holder IS Luther Billis. He is such a believable character, always up to some scam or other but underneath all that foolishness he cares deeply for Nellie and even the ridicule of the boys does not stop him doing anything for her even if it is trying to be the hero like Emile. Nick has a great stage presence and creates a wonderful but realistic character with loveable charm. Mention must also be made of his excellent sidekick Stewpot (Paul Hawkyard)
I don’t know which two children we had for the performance of the 8 listed but they were both very good, natural and realistic. No stage school grooming, which was great. They had a very believable relationship with Philip Quast’s Emile which just seemed so natural as she chased them around the room and carried them both off over his shoulder.
Throughout the whole production I never felt that the ensemble were ever used as ‘set’ dressing. There was always the right number and right type of people in a scene to make it realistic. Both men and women created an excellent array of characters to complete this cast, creating that realistic atmosphere of life on the island from the opening ‘Bloody Mary’ when the men are desperate for women to the ‘Wash that Man Right Out of my Hair’ as the girls help Nellie get Emile out of her system.
What I liked about this production was a sense of realism and emotional aspects to the piece. The thoughts and lifestyle all come across as believable with none of the ‘kitsch’ lets get the chorus on for this number. The costumes were excellent, I particularly liked the ‘Honey Bun’ costumes as they been made from items found on the island , which was a more realistic vision, than ‘perfect’ costumes which look as though they could come from Broadway.
The National Theatre seem to have done it again, taking an old classic and turning it into a modern classic.
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