The Smallest Show on Earth review at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester – ‘works perfectly’
The Smallest Show on Earth began life as a 1950s British movie starring Margaret Rutherford and Peter Sellers. The theme of the underdog battling to stay afloat in the face of post-war development was particularly resonant, and comic turns from Sellers and the cast made the picture a modest hit for the British Lion distributor.
For the stage adaptation, Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander have expanded the original David and Goliath battle between the decrepit bijou cinema and the garishly modern Grand and developed characters to suit a musical theatre construct. The decision to use a back catalogue of popular Irving Berlin songs to complement the narrative is a brave one, as the story is so idiosyncratically British and Berlin’s tunes seem wholly American.
Thankfully, this unusual hybrid works rather well. Southerland and Alexander have plausibly incorporated many references to show business without once leaving the confines of the simple plot. Classic tunes such as Blue Skies, Always and Steppin’ Out With My Baby slip seamlessly into the narrative and numbers such as Shaking the Blues Away gleefully accompany a montage of the Bijou’s rejuvenation. Lee Proud’s choreography is a constant delight, whether illustrating a knees-up at the Railway Arms or capturing the moves of Astaire or Kelly so the guy can win his girl.
Liza Goddard may lack the character looks of Rutherford but her take on the outspoken Mrs Fazackalee is equally indomitable, especially when dealing with Brian Capron’s drunken Percy Quill. Despite Goddard and Capron’s star billing, it’s Laura Pitt-Pulford as Jean and Haydn Oakley as Matthew who drive the show, giving the story its emotional centre and providing some quality vocals.
It wouldn’t be a British musical comedy without some decent character roles and Ricky Butt and Matthew Crowe have all the bases covered. Butt as Ethel Hardcastle is a glorious comedy villain, looking like an animated Giles cartoon but sadly lacking a really good villain’s song. Crowe, however, subtly pulls the carpet from beneath everybody’s feet as solicitor Robin Carter with an eye for the centre stage.
Southerland, perhaps best known for reinventing big musicals on the smaller stage, is evidently in his element as director. His trademark techniques flourish on the bigger stage and this show bears all the hallmarks of a director who knows how to handle classical musical comedy properly. There are a few difficult moments, notably It’s a Lovely Day Today, which seems to lack the necessary energy, and the final scene might benefit from more drama, but there is nothing that cannot tighten up as the production tours. Southerland’s adaptation might have been better served by original songs but as hybrids go, this new Berlin musical comedy is an absolute gem.
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