If you’re stuck in Oxford this 9th week for whatever sin you may have committed, be it choosing an undergraduate course in Classics, a graduate course of any kind, or offering to ,emtor the next generation of Oxonians and comfort those off to study in cities where Camera wouldn’t count as a good club, your spirits may well be in need of a lift. In that case, the best medicine this doctor can offer is South Pacific at the New Theatre. Musicals aren’t usually something that attract me, but it’s clear even from my limited experience that South Pacific had an unusually well-practised connection between the musicians, who were excellent, and the singers, particularly De Becque, played by JasonHoward. It was reassuring for this music novice that my choral scholar companion also appreciated the exceptional richness and power of Howard’s voice, which is given free rein a few times during the show – rarely have I been so entranced by a burly Frenchman in blacktie.
Also of particular note were the smaller parts, including De Becque’s children,who were incredibly small and cute but also very confident and professional. Definitely one forthe ‘aww’ factor for any of you suffering from Christmas broodiness.The fact that this was a hugely absorbing, entertaining and uplifting sing-a-long made it fun forthe whole audience, which seemed to consist primarily of families and older couples, thoughit had the side effect that the performance’s suffusion with sexual innuendos that seemed to scream out to this writer, perhaps because of the obsessions that dominate student theatre,became all the more unsettling.
Another subversive undertone was race: South Pacific was first performed in 1949, and the mores of that age are apparent. I defy any audience-member not to cringe at Nellie (Samantha Womack)’s concerns about marrying a man widowed by a black women and caring for mixed race children. While obviously such things shouldn’t ruin our enjoyment of what is definitely a fantastic, entertaining and engaging play, they should remind us of how much our enjoyment of art is affected by our acknowledgement of its context, and the ethical differences between our two times.
The lighting and set design were excellent tonight, a reminder of the dramatic difference between professional shows and even the best student productions that we see in Oxford: the set’s incredible range, complete with a full complement of moving sections, enabled a really entertaining set of locales to be conjured up for us. All in all, South Pacific is definitely worth seeing: the songs are catchy and well sung; the acting is strong and at times captivating; the plot, while not exactly intellectually stimulating, is fun and well paced; and the whole experience is a great escape from an increasingly wintry Oxford. Make it part of your vac res, and you won’t regret it.