Book: Warner Brown
Lyrics: Warner Brown and David Heneker
Music: David Heneker
Director: Jenny Eastop
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Revived as part of the Finborough Theatre’s British Musicals season, The Biograph Girl, an account of the rise of Hollywood’s silent movie industry in the teens and twenties of the last century, dates only from 1980. This comes as a surprise, because an old-fashioned musical style which owes more to Ivor Novello than to Lionel Bart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, suggests something much earlier.
The show had a modest initial West End run at the Phoenix Theatre, but, shortly thereafter, Torvill and Dean popularised Jerry Herman’s superb score for the erstwhile Broadway flop Mack and Mabel and that became the early Hollywood musical of choice. Mack Sennett appears again here, characterised in Matthew Cavendish’s pratfalling, scene-stealing performance as a man who lived his life in the manner of a Keystone Cop.
The chief problem with Warner Brown’s book is that it charts movie history in sketchy, semi-documentary style without fully developing a central narrative focus to drive the show. Famous names come and go, but Brown’s interest seems not to be in their lives, but in their industry. His lyrics, co-written with composer David Heneker, range from the mildly amusing to the predictable, while lines such as “…your dreams come true on the casting couch” and “every lady needs a master who can guide her through” are pretty well guaranteed to enrage supporters of today’s Me Too movement.
Heneker is no Herman, but his score, played on a single piano by musical director Harry Haden-Brown, is pleasantly hummable. Director Jenny Eastop’s production is zestful, if not over-imaginative and it includes several excellent performances. Sophie Linder-Lee is a bubbly Gladys Smith (aka Mary Pickford, aka America’s Sweetheart, aka The Biograph Girl), the 21-year-old child star that her studio will not allow to grow up; Linder-Lee manages to be endearingly juvenile and, at the same time, steely and avaricious. Emily Langham’s sweet-natured Lilian Gish, a serious stage actor from New York who looks down on the burgeoning film industry, is the closest that the show gives us to a character that we want to root for.
The show’s strongest theme centres on the struggle between art and commerce that has defined Hollywood throughout its history. Jonathan Leinmuller’s DW Griffith is a proud and upright visionary, demanding truth in his films, but denying reality in the real world and believing that audiences would want silent Shakespeare more than talking pictures. His Birth of a Nation stirs up racial tensions in the Deep South and his Intolerance inspires indifference everywhere. In the long-term, both were to gain critical plaudits, but it is Mack Sennett who rakes in the cash.
Some musicals benefit enormously from being miniaturised to fit into tiny venues such as the Finborough, but, performed here with minimal set and props, this is not one of them. The story and songs are too slight to compensate for the absence of big theatre spectacle and this contributes to a feeling that the show is as dated as silent movies themselves must have seemed with the advent of the talkies.
Runs until 9 June 2018 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli