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The Biograph Girl review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘a love letter to silent film’

Sophie Linder-Lee and Jason Morell in The Biograph Girl at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Lidia Crisafulli
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In 1912, only the most desperate out-of-work theatre actors would have considered slumming it in moving picture shows. By 1928, cinema was established as an art form and certainly a more profitable way of making a living than treading the boards.

It’s difficult not to compare Warner Brown and David Heneker’s The Biograph Girl (written in 1980; this is its first professional revival) with Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel (1974) in terms of subject matter – Mack Sennett is a character in both – and the underlying melancholy for the transience of the silent era.

Heneker’s score doesn’t have the oomph of Herman’s but it does feature some lively production numbers with witty lyrics by Brown, enhanced here by Holly Hughes’s bubbly choreography. Jenny Eastop’s unfussy, sweetly sung production evokes the ingenuous, all-hands-on-deck quality that the early studios relied on whilst experimenting with their innovations and manufacturing the first stars.

As Mary Pickford, the eternally 12-year-old enchantress of the flickers, Sophie Linder-Lee shows the core of steel of a shrewd businesswoman always in search of a better offer underneath the curls, frills and sugary-sweet smiles.

The second heroine, the pensive Lillian Gish (Emily Langham), makes a sensitive counterpart to Mary’s cutesy exuberance as the actress who introduced thought processes to the screen. However, she largely expresses herself through her unrequited longing for the paternalistic studio boss DW Griffith (director of the notorious Birth of a Nation, played with appropriate single-mindedness by Jonathan Leinmuller). It’s a reminder of the lack of agency afforded to many women in film, if perhaps not the message the show seeks to impart.

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A winningly wistful musical love letter to silent film