The Smallest Show on Earth*** (Swan Theatre, High Wycombe)

Posted: October 20, 2015 in Theatre

smallest showSometimes things can be all about timing. In this case, it is bad timing on my part to catch a touring production on the dreaded Monday night with a half full house. And for a show about reviving a failing cinema, it is unlucky timing to hit the stage so soon after a show about reviving a failing theatre (Mrs Henderson Presents) has been greeted with rapturous praise and a West End transfer. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, but let’s just say that Mrs H has original songs and this show, sadly, hasn’t. The book by Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander is an adaptation of the 1957 British film, famously featuring Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers in supporting roles. Southerland has gained a big reputation on the London fringe for breathing fresh life into half forgotten American musicals (Titanic, The Grand Tour and the forthcoming Grey Garden are examples) so this is a departure for him, embarking on a musical that is original, British and staged for large, traditional theatres. His directorial flair and imagination, developed from working on shows with scant resources, are here in abundance and the big numbers, choreographed by his regular collaborator Lee Proud, are all excellent. Most of us will have seen the film at some time, screened on tv on some rainy afternoon and remember the plot. It is a sort of “Fleapit Paradiso” about a couple, played here by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley, who inherit the Bijou cinema in Sloughborough (somewhere where they speak with Lancashire accents), together with its batty pianist (Liza Goddard) and its drunken projectionist (Brian Capron). It is warm, affectionate and nostalgic and here it is spruced up with songs (Simple Melody, Always, It’s a Lovely Day Today, Steppin’ Out…etc, etc) by Irving Berlin, whose catalogue is so huge that finding a song to fit comfortably into every situation in a show like this should not have presented many difficulties. However, there is a very big difference between songs that fit in and ones that arise naturally from a story and its characters and that difference represents the show’s main weakness. It is not just the lyrics that feel not quite right, but the melodies that sound like American show tunes of the pre-War era, rather than the music that characterised Britain when the show is set in the late 50s, the time that rock ‘n’ roll was making its breakthrough. The compensations for this disappointment are substantial – terrific performances all round, splendid staging and the illusion that it all ends with “blue skies from now on”. In reality, we all know that the best efforts of the characters here were only postponing the inevitable and that competition from television and the rise of multiplexes would quickly see off the Bijou and its like. Nonetheless, this mixed bag still contains lots of goodies to enjoy.

Performance date: 19 October 2015

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