Writers: Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
Director: Thom Southerland
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
If you love Irving Berlin’s songs you are going to adore The Smallest Show on Earth. Packed to the brim with back-to-back Berlin hits such as Blue Skies, Always, Let Yourself Go, one song hardly finishes before the next begins.
Adapted from the 1957 movie of the same name, writers Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander smoothly transform this Ealing Studios-style quaint, British comedy into a toe-tapping, high-energy musical.
The story starts with the newly married Matt and Jean, down on their luck as Matt tries to make his way writing film scripts. Out of the blue, Matt receives notification that he is to inherit a cinema outside London, The Bijou. When they arrive, instead of the modern, glitzy picture house of their imagination, they find they own a run-down fleapit, run by feuding staff and losing sales to the other cinema in town, the modern Grand.
This adaptation keeps all the charm of the original: gentle humour; the bumbling underdog versus the rapacious bully; tradition set against modern threat; eccentric characters in small town Britain; amateur management but hearts of gold. The plot is as easy to read as any episode of Downton Abbey. But it doesn’t matter. With this production, you get a great classic British comedy, 18 songs from one of America’s greatest songwriters and a huge helping of Strictly Come Dancing-style choreography thrown in.
Wrought iron balustrades, sweeping staircase and plush velvet seats evocatively make up David Woodhead’s set of the decaying Bijou. Lee Proud’s choreography is outstanding and gives us some great individual and ensemble routines straight from Berlin’s era.
The entire cast is totally on form. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley as the young married couple, Jean and Matt, are ‘cheesily lovable’. Liza Goddard tenderly plays the prickly but vulnerable Mrs Fazackalee. Brian Capron, as the projectionist Percy Quill, keeps us all hopeful for his redemption. Christina Bennington and Sam O’Rourke, the young romantics, enjoy the best choreographed moments of the evening as the cover the stage in a romantic dance duet which surely would have got them a ‘10’ even from Craig Revel Horwood on his grumpiest of nights. Matthew Crowe has a superb comic evening as the unfortunate Robin Carter.
Mark Aspinall’s orchestra, discretely hidden behind the backdrop, has a busy evening providing the music for this jukebox run through of some of Irving Berlin’s classics. Thom Southerland’s direction produces a slick and enjoyable show.
The first half does seem to suffer a little from low energy in places, but the second half comes back as if it has been supercharged. If you don’t have much knowledge or nostalgia for Berlin’s music, the undoubtedly formulaic story and characters and obvious jokes may not be enough to please you completely. But as a cross between the gentle humour of an Ealing classic, the predictability of Downton Abbey and the glitz of Strictly Come Dancing, this show certainly pleases its audience. And you can’t ignore the weekend television audience figures – this show has a winning combination.
Runs until 7 November 2015 as part of a tour | Image: Alistair Muir