South Pacific: enchanting and hugely entertaining but with a message

Sadler’s Wells, London
August 4, 2022

The opening scene that sees the young Polynesian girl, Liat, dancing happily is as powerful as they come. Happily and contentedly, that is, until the US military arrives. As the marines run around her, heavy boots thudding in stark contrast to her light beauty, you just know the world she knew has gone for ever.

The idea of incomers, armies, settlers or whoever, destroying what was, what we today call globalism, is just one of several issues raised in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, although the most powerful is undoubtedly racism and interracial marriage. While the musical’s look at the subjects were a commentary on American society of the late-1940s, when it first hit the stage, they remain incredibly apposite today.

Julian Ovenden (Emile) and Gina Beck (Nellie) in South Pacific
Photo Johan Persson

Some of the songs are very familiar: ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘Bali Hai’, ‘There is Nothin’ Like a Dame’, ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’, ‘Younger Than Springtime’. Less well-known, I suspect, is the story behind them. South Pacific tells of US forces occupying a Polynesian island during World War Two. Nellie Forbush, a nurse, falls in love with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner, but rejects him when she discovers he has two children by a local woman, now dead. A side-story deals with Lt Joseph Cable, a Princeton graduate on what amounts to a suicide mission, and his falling for Liat, daughter of the farouche camp-follower Bloody Mary, but who he sees as beneath him.

This Chichester Festival Theatre production of South Pacific is far from a sermon, however. The music is gorgeous, the set is fabulous, there’s romance and real, fully-fleshed out characters everywhere you look. It’s hugely entertaining with several rip-roaring big numbers in amongst its solos.

Gina Beck (centre, as Nellie) and company in South Pacific
Photo Johan Persson

The underlying issues may be inescapable, but Director Daniel Evans largely tackles them with a light touch. That makes the sudden unveiling of Nellie’s racist tendencies comes like a bolt from the blue. It hits you squarely between the eyes and makes you question how you could have been so taken in. But Rodgers and Hammerstein don’t stop there. In one of the show’s less well-known numbers, ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’, sung by Lt Cable, they make the point that attitudes are learned not born with.

Gina Beck’s Nellie is perfectly pitched as outwardly robust but inwardly initially rather naive. That she is so engaging and warm, so sweet-natured, makes the shock when we discover her prejudices all the greater. It is like a sudden Arctic chill blows through the theatre.

As Emile, Julian Ovenden is a fine actor with an equally fine, powerful voice. ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in particular is sung with perfect gravitas. He’s also one of those lucky performers who has great but quiet presence. As he deals with his emotions and rage at the way the war has turned his world upside down, he gets one of the most powerful lines of the evening: “We know what you’re against,” he says to US island commander Captain George Brackett, “But what are you for?” A question perhaps that should be asked more often.

Joanna Ampil (Bloody Mary), Sera Maehara (Liat) and Rob Houchen (Lt Joseph Cable) in South Pacific
Photo Johan Persson

Rob Houchen plays Lt Joseph Cable, who falls in love with Liat. Although he refuses to marry her, at least he understands why, even if it does tear him apart.

Bloody Mary is reimagined by Joanna Ampil as strong, forceful and self-confident. She also a lot smarter than any of the Americans. But there’s a vulnerable side too. She’ll do anything for her daughter Liat, her safety, happiness and future security. ‘Happy Talk’ often comes across as upbeat and light. Not here, where she fills it with deep maternal feelings.

As Liat herself, Sera Maehara gets very few words. Instead, her character is beautifully and eloquently expressed through Ann Yee’s choreography. She moves gracefully and tenderly, and is quite mesmerising.

Sera Maehara as Liat in South Pacific
Photo Johan Persson

Douggie McMeekin has great fun as Luther Billis. He has a hand in everything, running a laundry business and Billis Beach Club alongside being a soldier. Always one step ahead of the officers, you suspect he’s the guy who actually keeps the unit together.

That’s in stark contrast to the dance for the Americans. The stage fizzes with energy in the two really big numbers, the gender-specific ‘There is Nothin’ Like a Dame and ‘Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair’, the latter coming complete with working showers. They are just one detail in Peter McKintosh’s super designs and staging. Set inside a corrugated-iron looking box, the whole show takes places on a huge revolve that somehow gives everything a very intimate feel.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells to August 28, 2022. Visit for tickets.

The show then heads off on a UK tour. Visit for dates, venues, and much more.