This is Big. No, actually. This musical version of the much-loved 1988 American comedy film initially opened on Broadway in 1996, where it picked up five Tony nominations but was otherwise a complete catastrophe. Now, twenty-three years on, it has finally reached the West End, produced by Michael Rose and directed by Morgan Young – the team behind 2015’s musical adaptation of Elf.
Big famously featured a young-ish Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old New Yorker who becomes a fully fledged adult overnight, and proceeds to land himself a girlfriend and a job testing toys. Hanks earned his first Oscar nod for the role, and the film itself was a success both critically and commercially.
Hanks’ part is played here by singer and Strictly star Jay McGuiness. He’s joined by Girls Aloud alumna Kimberley Walsh, and veteran performers Wendi Peters and Matthew Kelly. Young’s production plays at the Dominion Theatre until early November.
But will McGuiness be able to squeeze into the sizeable shoes left to him by Hanks? Will Young’s production prove capable of filling the daunting Dominion? Just how many size-related puns can the critics come up with?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The grown-ups behind big are John Weidman (book), David Shire (music), and Richard Maltby (lyrics). All three have had hits elsewhere, but Big was a famous flop for them. Are the critics kinder to it two decades on from its debut?
Some are. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail ★★★★) reckons that its story “can still tug the heartstrings”, Mark Shenton (London Theatre ★★★★) finds it “a surprising delight”, and Alun Hood (WhatsOnStage ★★★★) writes that although “it is unlikely to be on any musical theatre fan’s all-time top 10 list, it is an agreeable slice of escapist entertainment”.
“Compared with many other mega-musicals one could mention this is small fry,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★). “And yet my inner adolescent won out over my cynical older self. It’s big, occasionally clever but above all, it’s morale-boosting fun.”
The rest of the reviewers are less convinced, though. It’s “mechanically slick, soulless, tone-deaf take” on the movie according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★), who adds that “you can almost see the algorithm at work”, while for Tim Bano (The Stage ★★) it “belittles its source material and turns endearing quirk into generic mush” and has “wince-inducing gender politics”.
Kate Wyver (Guardian ★★) agrees, and points out some more problematic points. “This soulless show feels both flatter and more uptight than its source material,” she writes. “And while this romcom attempts to wash over the murky sexual politics with a jokey aside, it feels naive not to grapple with the fact that it is the story of a 12-year-old boy in a sexual relationship with a 30-something woman.”
So much for the story. But what about Shire’s score? And Young’s direction and choreography? What about Simon Higlett’s set, which features the famous giant keyboard upon which Josh dances out a tune?
For Paul Taylor (Independent ★★★★) Shire’s songs have “versatility and verve” and for Hood, “the company numbers really pop and the ballads are undeniably enjoyable”, but for everyone else, the score is nothing special. They’re “almost entirely filler” according to Bano, “humdrum” according to Curtis, and “bland” according to Shenton. “Too many numbers,” writes Matt Wolf (The Arts Desk ★★★) feel like padding.”
Young’s direction and choreography come in for more praise – his work is “zestful” for Taylor, “slick” for Cavendish” and “frenetic” for Wolf – but the critics can’t make up their minds about Higlett’s revolving set, which is augmented using video projections designed by Ian William Galloway.
For some, the set sits well in the notoriously difficult Dominion. It’s “spectacularly designed”, writes Mark Shenton, while Clive Davis (Times ★★★) opines that it constantly “grabs the attention” and Marmion admiringly calls it a “huge cinematic experience”.
For others, though, the set is as bad as the story. The huge rotating screen “feels closer to cheating than innovation”, suggests Wyver, while Bano reckons the problem with combining physical sets with projection is that “there’s no attempt to make them match stylistically, and each makes the other look less real.”
McGuiness takes on the Hanks role here. He’s had an eclectic career so far, starting out as a singer with boy band The Wanted, then winning the thirteenth season of Strictly Come Dancing before branching out into stage stuff. Most critics think he’s got a future in theatre.
He’s got “dorky charm” according to Bano, “scampering energy” according to Cavendish, and supplies “a performance of wide-eyed and curly topped wonder” that is “full of joy and surprise” according to Shenton. Granted, he’s no Hanks, warns Curtis, but he still has “a certain bashful vigour.”
The same can be said of Walsh, the ex-Girls Aloud member who starred in the Shrek and Elf musicals in 2012 and 2015 respectively. She’s “a knockout” for Taylor and “sings and acts everyone else off the stage” according to Curtis. Together they’re “really charming”, says Hood, but Wyver writes that “it’s a shame Walsh’s lines rarely take her away from the topic of men”.
Alongside McGuiness and Walsh are Peters, playing Josh’s mother, and Kelly, playing Josh’s toyshop boss. They supply solid performances – they supply “fine support”, says Cavendish – but both, most critics complain, have precious little to do in truth.
It’s far from a five-star smash, that’s for sure, but it’s not a total disaster either. The critics generally fall into two camps: those that get swept up in the show’s sense of childish fun and award it four stars, and those that are left distinctly high and dry and give it two, condemning it as a cynical enterprise from start to finish.
Almost everyone agrees that McGuiness and Walsh are perfectly proficient leads, and that Shire’s score leaves a lot to be desired, but there’s less consensus elsewhere – over the story, the set and the style of the show. Big isn’t going to make it big, but it’s caused a significant stir in the stalls nonetheless.