Writers: Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander
Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
Director: Thom Southerland
Musical Director: Mark Aspinall`
Choreographer: Lee Proud
Reviewer: Michael Gray
The Smallest Show On Earth is an intriguing marriage, a brand-new classic musical comedy, wedding the songs of Irving Berlin to the much-loved British Lion film from the 50s. The “matchmaker” here is Thom Southerland, co-writer and director of this seriously charming piece of escapism.
The central plot and the main characters survive from the film; sympathetic tweaks bring the story closer to the world of Top Hat and Blue Skies.
There are encouraging signs from outset. The glorious set (David Woodhead) evoking the rococo flea pit with its sweeping staircase. A wonky proscenium curtain flies out and the railway bridge flies in for the opening scene in the pub. It’s a mood set from the overture, arranged for cinema organ, though not alas rising from the depths.
There is an upright piano, though, for Liza Goddard’s lovely Mrs Fazackalee, duetting wonderfully with Leo Andrew’s Simon before the fatal yard of ale carries him off, leaving the Spensers to inherit the Bijou Kinema…
They are played, in fine period style, by Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley (star of the Mercury Theatre’s acclaimed Betty Blue Eyes revival last year). Brian Capron is Quill, the Peter Sellers rôle, big-hearted behind the boozy, belligerent exterior. Callow commissionaire Tom is played by Sam O’Rourke, blessed with a fittingly Fifties face, and remaining perfectly in character even in his fantastic, fancy-footwork Fred Astaire routine with Christina Bennington’s Marlene, whose vaudeville talents help save the Bijou from the wrecking ball. When stage fright strikes, junior partner Carter (Matthew Crowe – clearly a song and dance man from his first entrance) steps in with a priceless version of They Love Me (from Mr President).
Villains of the piece, owners of the rival Grand, are Philip Rham and Ricky Butt, mistress of the one-line put-down.
A sparkling script, with snappy choreography from Lee Proud, and all the conventions of the genre are scrupulously observed – we have follow spots, a tap routine, a novelty number (Shaking the Blues Away for the deep-clean makeover, with mops, brooms, feather dusters and carpet beaters), big anthems either side of the intermission, and a chorus line curtain call to a final reprise of Blue Skies.
The musical numbers, an astute mix of the familiar and the forgotten (like When Winter Comes from the Sonja Henie vehicle Second Fiddle), fit snugly into the narrative, often interwoven with the dialogue. The dolls’ house buildings, first seen from the Paddington-Sloughborough train, make an effective distant backdrop, and concealed behind it, the pit orchestra (no actor-musicians here) under MD Mark Aspinall.
The whole show is polished to perfection, an effervescent cocktail of film and musical comedy, Bijou and Berlin, a perfect night out for anyone who appreciates a good story and a toe-tapping tune.
Runs until 10 October 2015 then tours nationally| Image: Alastair Muir