Wednesday 13 September 2023

Theatre review: The Little Big Things

Back to @sohoplace, the theatre with a name so current it's kept its tamagotchi alive for a whole two weeks, and the new West End venue's first musical. Nick Butcher (music & lyrics,) Tom Ling (lyrics) and Joe White's (book) The Little Big Things is based on the autobiography of artist Henry Fraser, who is paralysed from the shoulders down and paints using a stylus he holds in his mouth. A promising teenage rugby player, Fraser was 17 when he had an accident on holiday in Portugal with his older brothers (Jamie Chatterton and Cleve September) that saw him flown back to England and to the hospital where he spent several months. The show is narrated by two versions of Henry that talk to each other in his head: The able-bodied Henry from before the accident (Jonny Amies) and the Henry after it, in a wheelchair (Ed Larkin.)

They have a symbiotic relationship, the older Henry guiding his younger self through life-changing events, the pre-accident Henry helping the disabled one remember the person he used to be.

The show's journey sees the new Henry deal with the fact that he has to, if not leave the old one behind entirely, at least not be haunted by him all the time, so that he can move on with his life. He's helped with this by his physiotherapist Agnes, who also serves as his unofficial mentor in life as a wheelchair-user, and Amy Trigg makes the blunt, sarcastic physio an immediate audience favourite. (Malinda Parris' Dr Graham, on the other hand, comes in pretty strong early on, only for the show to almost entirely forget her within a couple of scenes.)

The whole evening could have done with a bit more of Agnes' no-nonsense approach, as although the story comes across clearly and Fraser as an inspirational figure, I'm not convinced it's done any favours in the execution. This has felt like a very strong year for musicals, but the weaker entries have been the ones that treat "musical theatre" as if it's an actual genre rather than striking out on their own path, and Butcher's songs definitely feel like they're trying to conform to expectations - I can't say any numbers stood out.

And Luke Sheppard's production takes a while to find a convincing tone: Far too often it lands on cheese, and while the efforts to make the show inclusive - including various cast members with disabilities - is laudable, the elements of Mark Smith's choreography that incorporate sign language come across awkwardly.

The second act feels sturdier, as it embraces both dirtier, sillier humour – youngest brother Dom (Jordan Benjamin) has to learn how to readjust Henry’s genitals so he doesn’t end up sitting on his balls – and the real pressure put on his family by the life-changing events. There’s a question mark over whether his parents’ (Alasdair Harvey and Musical Theatre RoyaltyTM Linzi Hateley) marriage will survive, and finally the show achieves a real feeling of brutal honesty when Hateley’s Fran exposes just how much the family blame each other for the accident, drawing audience gasps. The Little Big Things plays it safe a bit too much to really feel distinctive, but when there’s a bit more of a sense of danger to it – literally when it involves a man in a wheelchair being swung above the stage on wires like an out-of-control pendulum – it shows the potential it hasn’t quite tapped.

The Little Big Things by Nick Butcher, Tom Ling and Joe White is booking until the 25th of November at @sohoplace Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

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