Tim Hochastrasser reviews new British musical The Little Big Things which is now playing @SohoPlace.
The Little Big Things
This new British musical comes with great expectations that are triumphantly fulfilled. On press night it received one of the biggest ovations I have heard in a theatre in years, and it is richly deserved. For a musical to work on this level then, just as in opera, many moving parts have to synchronise perfectly. Here we have a superb book, well-crafted music, some snappy lyrics, gorgeous design values and all the rich technical resources of @sohoplace – not least back-stage facilities fully adapted to allow disabled actors to perform as equals, a central feature of the production itself.
The source of this show is the memoir and life experiences of Henry Fraser, who at the age of only 17 was paralysed from the shoulders down in a freak diving accident in Portugal. He had a promising rugby future taken from him and had to rebuild his life completely with the aid of his devoted parents, brothers, and medical team. Ultimately, he was able to retrain himself as an artist using a specially adapted mouth-brush and become a best-selling author as well.
As the lead character himself says near the start, on the face it this does not seem like promising musical material. But the production defies expectations on two grounds. Firstly, it demonstrates its own message by showing the skills of disabled actors to outstanding advantage; while, secondly, it avoids the obvious cliches of what one of the creative team calls ‘inspiration porn.’ This is absolutely not a story of how ‘plucky disabled person makes non-disabled people feel better about the world.’ The excellent book by Joe White is quite often tough on everyone – yes, courage is celebrated, but equally room is allotted to the moments of bleak despair and the strains on family members are made clear. Above all self-conscious piety and gloom are banished in favour of great bouts of humour and fun involving all the cast, and often quite dark medical humour in the style of Adam Kay.
Key to this is having the lead character played by two actors which enable us to see Henry before and after the accident and allows for a crucial internal dialogue and commentary that has to take place before Henry can let go of the person he once was. There is a wonderfully natural rapport between Jonny Amies and Ed Larkin and some of the most breath-taking moments of the show involve their mutual truth-telling embodied in some remarkable, even aerial, special effects.
There are no weaknesses in a skilful cast that has clearly entered into this show body and soul. It is invidious to single out only a few, but any review must point out the magnificent contributions of Linzi Hateley, Malinda Parris and Amy Trigg in three key roles. As Henry’s mum Fran, Hateley exudes a ‘tiger mum’ determination never to give up. She carries the emotional weight of many of the early scenes and it is her near breakdown in the later stages that reveals fully the toll on the family. Parris plays the no-nonsense surgeon Dr Graham and demonstrates rare vocal prowess in a series of up-tempo numbers, ‘Work of Heart’ and ‘Uma Vida’, that provide an emotional contrast to the plangency of the main drama. Amy Trigg is a whirlwind of timing and energy in a wheelchair, whose portrayal of a physio grounded in tough love provides some of the most heart-warming and purely funny moments of the evening.
Not all the music is memorable by any means, but all the numbers take the action forward or add extra depth to the character or to significant events. Composer Nick Butcher and lyricist Tim Ling provide nine songs in each half and the best ones are those that start in realism and then develop into elaborate fantasy or those that dig deep into the emotions of character in focus. They range across a wide spectrum of musical genres and director Luke Sheppard and his team judiciously match up some compelling special effects, while cannily holding things in reserve until the final scenes.
The importance of art and painterly effects in Henry’s life and recovery means that – rightly – the visual aspect of this show is absolutely central to its success. The stage itself is relatively bare, with room for the furniture for domestic and hospital settings to be moved around and a central rectangle that rises to become a separate platform. But onto this flat surface are projected a series of videos by Luke Halls that provide super-saturated moments of colour to fit a certain mood or energy in the drama. It is as though you are suddenly taken inside the frame of a Rothko or Hodgkin canvas, feelingly the passion and power of sheer colour through Henry’s eyes. These tableaus prepare you for a magical moment at which all Henry’s paintings descend from the flies as the symbol of his revival.
I hope that one element provides a sense of how carefully every aspect of this production has been intercalated with the psychological journey of the memoir; so that by the end you can really understand how Henry could come to value his new life independently of what he had to leave behind and how relearning appreciation of the ‘little things’ in life through an artist’s eye turns out to be the biggest lesson of all.
By staying true to the spirit of a remarkable book and life and not taking the obvious emotional routes this musical manages to be a joyous experience and a thought-provoking and uplifting commentary on what disability can enable as much as what it takes away.