It is safe to say that this year’s MTB production of Mack and Mabel is a testament to the sky-high calibre of musical and theatrical talent at Bristol University.
From consistently exquisite vocal performances to positively acrobatic choreography, Mack and Mabel does nothing by halves.
This classic 1974 musical follows the story of silent movie director-extraordinaire, Mack Sennett (James Stevens). With an expert eye for comedy, and the charisma to match, Mack has no trouble in recruiting sometime deli waitress, Mabel Normand (Grace Vance), as his muse - taking Hollywood by storm in the process. However, as Mabel rises to movie stardom, she begins to outgrow her cantankerous mentor (and fickle lover), setting her sites higher than ‘two-reelers’ and cream-pie gags. The audience accompanies Mabel from rags, to riches, to ruin - and eventually sees Mack bare the heavy loss of the only truly precious thing in his life.
The sheer scope of this production speaks volumes about those willing to take it on. Lily Dyble and her frankly stellar production team have embarked upon a monumental creative feat, and have done themselves proud. MTB’s interpretation of Mack and Mabel is alive with colour, spectacle and humanity.
Special credit is due to Rachel Clemens and Lydia Crump for their beautiful choreography and costume design. Act I’s party scene was one of the most sparklingly captivating things I have seen on the Winston stage.
Despite some very minor technical faults and teething problems, Mack and Mabel’s cast carried the performance with grace, professionalism and zeal.
James Stevens has a big task in filling the lead role. With a voice that could seduce any auditorium into silence, it was impossible not to be drawn in by his magnetic stage presence
Regardless of some infrequent instances of second night nerves, Stevens embodied Mack with impressive assurance, brilliant energy (and some very enviable accent abilities!).
Praises must be sung from the rooftops of the Richmond Building for leading lady, Grace Vance. Grace presents us with a Mabel who is at once audaciously free spirited, and painfully inhibited. While she laughs in the face of social expectation, she also flounders, unnoticed, under the weight of her own insecurity. The maturity, sensitivity and good humour with which she captured this character was remarkable. MTB’s Mabel, in a word, shone.
Nevertheless, this production would not have been half the success that it was had it not been for its phenomenal supporting cast and ensemble. Mhairi Angus delivered a delicious helping of sass in a stunning vibrato, while Sam Williams’ gravity defying tumbles made me seriously re-evaluate my own levels of both fitness and bravery. Ned Costello’s portrayal of writer and unrequited lover, Frank, was heart-rendingly charming. If I had space to credit every actor onstage, I would - their contribution to the show as a whole was invaluable.
Finally, a musical is nothing without the music - the night’s live orchestra and masterfully arranged score were a triumph.
There were, perhaps, a few elements of ‘Mack and Mabel’s complex episodic flow that could have done with tightening up. The original narrative itself is a somewhat in-cohesive, which presents any contemporary company with significant challenges. This cannot, however, overshadow what is a gorgeous final product from MTB.
I had to consciously remind myself that Mack and Mabel's power-house cast and crew are all, first and foremost, busy full time students. This show is, and always should be a huge source of pride for Bristol’s drama scene.