Just what IS wrong with Mack and Mabel, the silent-film-era musical with songs by the great Jerry Herman? Sometimes trailed as ‘the best score never to come from a hit musical’ it just doesn't seem to thrive – even the 1974 Broadway original starring Bernadette Peters almost instantly received 8 Tony nomination but survived only the same number of weeks. 

Since Herman is completely unimpeachable, I thought at first the blame could be laid at the door of the musical’s less famous book writer Michael Stewart. Although set in Hollywood it jogs on the same backstage treadmill as 42nd Street which he also co-wrote, and the themes of the unknown kid becoming a star, the fearsome director, and a line of hardboiled tap dancing chorus girls with hearts of gold are common to both. 42nd Street ran for over three thousand performances on Broadway and four and a half years at Drury Lane, so it’s not him either.

The same can be said for director Thom Southerland.  Like Michael Strassen and Phil Wilmott, he’s a young man for whom mid-century musical theatre is his lifeblood, and who understands the genre so completely it’s amazing no-one has yet given him a major West End theatre and budget, although he came close when the fine and inventive State Fair bounced from the Finborough to Trafalgar Studios. 

When Southerland and producer Danielle Tarento were sourcing the investment, they were fortunate to come across marketing executive and part-time theatrical angel John Flynn who had been in a coma following a heart by-pass operation until his wife played him the soundtrack of Mack and Mabel and his feet started tapping in the hospital bed. That in itself sounds like the plot for a musical, as he was initially reluctant to pour money into another show until he heard it was the one which had brought him back to coinsciousness. 

So will Mr Flynn lose his shirt, or maybe his hospital gown? Probably not, since the show’s selling well, but I wouldn’t anticipate an immediate West End transfer, in part because it’s so specifically constructed for this fringe space. 

Allowed by the copyright holders to tinker with the plot and script, Southerland has gone for an engagingly darker vein of storytelling. A slow, stygian and almost creepy start positions Mack Sennett at the closure of his film studio and reflecting bitterly on his failure to keep the most important woman in his life. 

The fatal flaw of Mack and Mabel is arguably that its cheerful and upbeat score sits uneasily with the extirpative love affair between two central and quite dislikeable characters. Sennett is too bombastic and uncaring, Mabel Normand too stupidly self-destructive for the audience to have more than a passing interest in their outcomes, but the intelligence of this production is how it plays the doomed love story contrapuntally against a deliberate and defensive brightness in the songs, and that Southerland adjusts the ending to allow an operatically tragic conclusion when Mabel dies in Sennett’s arms instead of walking out on him. Had it been handled as badly as, say the end of Love Never Dies, it could have been more Mac and Cheese than Mack and Mabel, but they do it well. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford travels the arc of Mabel’s career with pure brilliance and an effortless singing voice. From a staccato entrance as the angry waitress demanding fifteen cents for the sandwich she’s brought to the studios through reflective torch songs and an angry triumph in "Wherever He Ain’t" she brings understanding and depth to the character. With her cascading hair she also looks remarkably like Mary Pickford.

Norman Bowman shines slightly less brilliantly as Sennett, but it’s a cursed part: he’s required to be constantly irascible yet sing songs which suggest he’s also an impish practical joker who "Wants to Make the World Laugh" - an impossible inconsistency.  Excellent contributions too from Stuart Matthew Price as Frank Capra, and Jessica Martin as an impeccable Lottie Ames. 

With a lot of furniture shifting and juggling of props to establish the scenes – some of those battered suitcases must have more production credits than half the cast – Jason Denvir’s design is quite enclosing, so the opportunities for production numbers are thereby constrained and Lee Proud can be forgiven for making the most of the two where his choreography is given free rein – a breathless Keystone Cop routine where the ensemble move so quickly you are dazzled into believing there’s many more than a half dozen of them, and the climactic "Tap Your Troubles Away" where his solution to tapping on a dirty concrete floor is little short of genius.

Mack and Mabel, at Southwark PlayhouseJohnny Fox reviews Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse.4