REVIEW: The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre ✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews The Biograph Girl, a musical by Warner Brown and David Heneker about the larger-than-life characters of early Hollywood now playing at the Finborough Theatre.

The Biograph Girl review Finborough Theatre
The cast of The Biograph Girl. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The Biograph Girl
Finborough Theatre
24th May 2018
2 Stars
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This is not so much a revival of a long-lost musical as an exhumation.  A crack team of surgeons, comprising some of the brightest and best of musical theatre talent in the country, are here to be seen doing their damnedest to reanimate the lifeless and partially decomposed remains of a forgotten work, but all is in vain: nothing can bring it back from the dead, and all we are left with is a public autopsy, and left wondering, over and over again, ‘Why did anyone think this was worth bringing back?’

OK.  On the plus side – and there is one – we get to see a bunch of clever troupers doing their stuff.  The opening number, ‘The Moving Picture’ show, is actually very good, and were you to leave immediately after it is over you would probably retain nothing but pleasant memories of the show.  It has a coherence, a sense of purpose, a wit and a freshness about it that promises much.  The problems begin with what follows.  The script cannot make itself the master of its material, and the score never regains that initial sense of decisiveness and point.  Over the years, many have been drawn to the larger-than-life characters of early Hollywood, and various attempts have been made to turn their biographies into grist for the showbiz mill.  These attempts are rarely successful: the personalities involved are so big, so powerful, that they tend to run away with themselves, easily evading the grip of (possibly less talented) artists who seek to make them their slaves.  It takes a fierce intellect and forceful writer – like, say, Billy Wilder – to take on the massive egos of the Silent Era and mould them into his own image.  Few people are equal to that challenge.

The Biograph Girl Finborough Theatre
Sophie Linder-Lee and Jason Morrell in The Biograph Girl. Photo: Lidia Crissafulli

And so it proves here.  Warner Brown’s pleasantly written dialogue obediently follows around the caprice of his admired egos, without ever standing a chance of reining them in and getting them to do his bidding.  The cast seem more than aware of this weakness in the writing.  As soon as any of them bestride the stage, they instinctively go with the surging force of the person whose mantel they have been asked to assume, and devil take the hindmost.  This is rather wonderful to observe, but it does not make for a coherent evening in the theatre.  Thus, Sophie Linder-Lee’s relentlessly gesticulating and posing Mary Pickford takes us on one journey: she is – ostensibly – the central focus of the play, ‘The Biograph Girl’ of Zukor’s movie empire.  But the script cannot keep hold of her: even with her remarkable trajectory to make a successful transition from child star into adult mogul, becoming co-founder of United Artists, a shrewd and successful businesswoman, Brown and David Heneker’s songs – by turns perky and sentimental – never even scratch her skin, much less get under it.

The same fate befalls the other characters they dragoon into their fictionalised documentary.  The Gish sisters (Lillian and Dorothy, played here by Emily Langham and Lauren Chinery with courageous fidelity to the one-dimensional characterisations provided by the text), D W Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller, seemingly strayed in from a Eugene O’Neill drama), Mack Sennett (Matthew Cavendish’s bravura West End’ish, ‘Burn The Floor’ physical theatre turn), and Zukor himself (played rather in the manner of bowdlerised Hollywood biopics by the true-to-form Mittel-europaeisch Jason Morell).  When each one of these comes on stage, they visibly pull the action and style of the work in their own direction, making Anna Yates’ spartanly bare design positively seem to pitch and reel with the impact.  Then there are the non-stars: the organiser Rose (Charlie Ryall, being terribly matter-of-fact), Momma Gish (Nova Skipp doing a stagey mum), Epping (Joshua C Jackson being amongst other things the token voice of outrage against the odious racism of Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’).  They get to wear a selection of convincingly chosen period outfits, which look oddly out of place in the quasi-rehearsal-room-with-piano that we get as a ‘set’: think of ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ meets Netflix costume drama.  Ali Hunter lights it simply.

The Biograph Girl Finborough Theatre
Emily Langham and Matthew Cavendish in The Biograph Girl. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

The question is, did director Jenny Eastop plan this, or simply give way to her despair of ever making any kind of sense of this disparate rag-bag of an event.  Time and again, she seems just to follow the stage directions, taking people on and off stage with nothing more to it than that.  If that is so, then I wonder if that is the kindest way to prepare actors for giving public performances of a play?  Holly Hughes’ vivacious choreography, by stark contrast, is packed full of the detail and verve that is so totally lacking in every other aspect of the direction.  However the results were achieved, it can be said that the direction and dance moves are clearly the work of immensely different personalities.

Having recently rediscovered the blissful delights of Heneker’s one really great score, ‘Half A Sixpence’, it would be nice, at least, to point to the musical element as being the saving grace of the work.  Even in the hands of very capable musical director Harry Haden-Brown, however, the work sounds as if it comes not from 1980, but from (at least) thirty years earlier.  And so do the social and sexual assumptions that underpin Heneker and Brown’s lyrics.  There are quite a few felicitous moments, in which melodic invention or lyrical wit or charm, briefly flash across the safe, placid surface of this thinly constructed adornment to the personalities on display.  But not enough to sustain interest.  Undeterred, Samuel French have published the whole text, and – if you so desire – you can snuggle down after the show and trawl through it, trying to fathom what on earth possessed anyone to present it to us.

Answers on a postcard, please.

Until 9 June 2018


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