“Forget this gateau, this means war”
When is a new musical a new musical, especially when it has music by Irving Berlin? The Smallest Show on Earth manages it by adapting the 1957 film of the same name and then sprinkling it with a selection of Berlin hits, both well-known and the not-so-much, to create something really rather adorable. Writers Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander have tailored this raw material beautifully, dovetailing the gently bittersweet humour of the British film with the instinctive melodiousness of Berlin’s songwriting into a heart-warmingly lovely new musical comedy.
Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spenser and his new wife Jean are agog when they discovered a long-lost relative has bequeathed them the Bijou cinema but aghast when they discover it is a total flea-pit. In order to get a decent offer from the rivals at the Grand cinema across the way, they pretend to be doing it up to make it a going concern but as they restore and repaint and get to know the eccentric locals that work there, the couple soon find that the picturehouse offers more opportunities than just old movies and oddballs.
Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley are perfectly cast as the central pair. Pitt-Pulford’s extraordinary voice never sounds better than when in this slightly clipped, classic singing style and Oakley’s hugely affable persona is the ideal foil to her innate warmth, it’s impossible not to root for them through the ups and downs of their relationship. And as the cinema employees with a deeply history intertwined, Liza Goddard and Brian Capron are good value for money, Goddard particularly nailing the aching emotional fragility of former silent film pianist Mrs Fazackalee with all her long-lost love.
Lee Proud’s choreography also helps to set the mood of gloriously good fun. An early chirpy routine down the old Railway Arms immediately locates the show in its happy place and it pretty much stays there throughout, culminating in the dreamy Hollywood pastiche of ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’, delivered beautifully by Christina Bennington and Sam O’Rourke as love’s young dream. The bold sound of Mark Aspinall’s 6-strong band is also immensely pleasurable, whether in the more familiar songs (a lovely duet of ‘What’ll I Do’) or rarities (like the cleverly repurposed ‘This Time’).
Whether in Matthew Crowe’s delightfully cheeky turn as solicitor’s son Robin or the crafty touches of David Woodhead’s set and costumes (look at what the showgirls’ plumage is made out of…), there’s huge amounts to enjoy in The Smallest Show on Earth and so it is gratifying to see that after this run in Colchester, the show will tour the UK through to the end of November. Southerland continues to prove that he is one of the most exciting and inventive directors (and now creator) of musical theatre in the country and with this ‘small’ show, has undoubtedly a big success.