'The Little Big Things' review – this new musical movingly and buoyantly puts disability centre stage
Read our four-star review of British musical The Little Big Things, based on Henry Fraser's memoir, now in performances at Soho Place to 25 November.
A big heart drives every moment of The Little Big Things, the new British musical that has arrived at Soho Place. This year-old venue’s first musical (Brokeback Mountain was technically a play-with-music), the show puts disability movingly and unapologetically centre stage in a venue whose commitment to accessibility and outreach is everywhere evident.
Based on the best-selling memoir by Henry Fraser, the story tells of the teenage Henry’s holiday to Portugal with his brothers in 2009 that ended up going tragically awry. Aged 17, he went diving into a seabed only to misjudge the shallows of the water: emerging with a crushed spinal cord, Henry faced up to his newfound paralysis with the resilience, grit and grace chronicled first on page and now onstage.
Discovering that he could paint with his mouth, he embarked upon an unanticipated career as an artist, alongside a determination to embrace “the little big things” that life offers up daily.
Even in synopsis, the narrative is deeply emotive, and I can happily report that I, like most of the audience, was moist-eyed come the final curtain. The director Luke Sheppard’s expert company make evident their commitment at every turn, and there’s an excitement that comes from welcoming newcomers to the musical theatre ranks in a town that – unlike New York – tends creatively to be dominated by all-too-few familiar names.
Joe White’s book takes the cunning decision to have Henry played by two people: the eager, able-bodied younger Henry (Jonny Amies) and the same self post-accident, played by Ed Larkin, who uses a wheelchair. Both performers are in sterling voice and neatly accommodate the notion of a bifurcated self that needs to be made whole if Henry is to embrace the world fully and freely.
We see Amies’s Henry excited about the trip to come, bantering with a house full of brothers prone to good-natured horseplay. The stage darkens to signal the accident, followed by a potted history of Henry’s rehabilitation. But, as shown here, he is miraculously able to return to his own garden far more speedily than anyone had any right to expect and is soon chivvying his mum (a wonderfully warm Linzi Hateley) to come along on a night out at the club, his disability be damned.
This same material could wallow in self-pity but is kept buoyant in this instance by a startlingly natural cast – Larkin wins over the audience from his opening “hi” – and the spryly sardonic presence of Agnes (Amy Trigg), a wheelchair-using physiotherapist who knows a thing or two about reckoning with a bygone life. Trigg, seen earlier in this same theatre’s stunning Medea, is a knockout.
Where the musical falters, oddly, is in its musical aspects, no matter how vibrantly the score by Nick Butcher – with lyrics by himself and Tom Ling – is served up by musical director Laura Bangay’s band.
Too many songs strive for the emo-pop realm deftly achieved by the likes of Dear Evan Hansen (the first-act finale, “The World is Waiting”, especially), and the numbers often take the softly generic option, which lends a sameness to proceedings that ought to feel startlingly individual – as Henry’s story most certainly is.
Moments of blame and doubt bring needed complexity to a piece that feels a few songwriting rewrites short of its full potential. But when the two male leads take to the air in defiance of a body that has been damaged, the audience’s spirits ascend on cue with them.
The Little Big Things is at Soho Place through 25 November. Book The Little Big Things tickets on London Theatre.
Photo credit: The Little Big Things (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)
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