Mark Shenton in the West End
15 September 2023
In a world of seemingly endless re-hashes of popular film titles as musicals – Mrs Doubtfire is now a hit at the Shaftesbury, Sunset Boulevard is about to return to the Savoy, and The Time Traveller’s Wife is en route to the Apollo – it’s a real pleasure to welcome a new original British musical The Little Big Things that’s based not on a film but a real-life story.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Pamela Raith.
It’s the best new locally born show since Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, which was also coincidentally based on a true story, and was likewise an affirmative story of triumphing over adversity.
Perhaps less coincidentally, co-producer Nica Burns – who committed to making her new venue @sohoplace host its London premiere after seeing a workshop – was also responsible for transferring Jamie from Sheffield to the Apollo Theatre that she also owns. She truly is making the West End a more inclusive and diverse space. @sohoplace has already hosted shows with and about neurodiverse people, and previously featured disabled actors on its stage, as well as deaf actors.
The Little Big Things takes on an even bigger picture: a serious disability that Henry Fraser isn’t born with but which changes his life forever after a catastrophic accident in the sea during a short holiday with his brothers in Portugal when he was just 17. It left him paralysed from the shoulders down. But after emerging from Stoke Mandeville Hospital after just nine months of treatment (his doctors expected him to be there for 17 months), his determination pushed him through and he’s made a new life for himself: not the one he was expecting, of course – but a true testament to the resilience of the human spirit (he has become a notable mouth artist as well as writer).
Ed Larkin & Jonny Amies.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith.
I watched it frequently on the edge of tears, and sitting in the round of @sohoplace, I could see other audience members brushing them away too. It’s a very relatable story – this could happen to anyone – but would and could we all respond with such life-affirming determination, defiance and ultimately grace?
Joe White’s book cleverly frames the story by seeing it simultaneously through the eyes of the active, pre-accident teenager (a zestful Jonny Amies) and the wheelchair-user man he becomes (a haunting and handsome Ed Larkin). But though it foregrounds his own response to his predicament, there’s also room for how his parents (the incredibly empathetic Linzi Hateley and Alasdair Harvey) and three brothers (played by Jordan Benjamin, Jamie Chatterton, and Cleve September) are affected, too, as well as his childhood sweetheart Katie (Gracie McGonigal).
There’s also beautifully sympathetic contributions from Malinda Parris as his lead doctor and especially Amy Trigg as his inspirational physiotherapist Agnes, herself in a wheelchair since a car accident at 19 but for whom a whole new and different life has opened up as a result.
The show is a glorious expression of hope, and is carried afloat (at one point literally, which I don’t want to spoil) in a production that’s buoyantly choreographed by deaf choreographer Mark Smith and incorporates sign language.
But director Luke Sheppard, who has come to specialize in pop musicals like the West End and Broadway hit & Juliet and the recent Roy Orbison musical In Dreams (seen at Leeds Playhouse earlier in the summer), gives it another type of language in its tender and aching heart that’s simultaneously heart-breaking but also an uplifting joy: an incredible balancing act that it achieves effortlessly.
The contemporary pop songs of composer Nick Butcher’s music set to lyrics by Butcher and Tom Ling is warm, witty, and frequently uplifting. The pop art design of Colin Richmond’s set, with video projections onto the stage floor that I imagine would be even more effective if viewed from the galleries, and Howard Hudson’s lighting add colour and joy, but the art of Henry himself is both the inspiration and inspiring heart of the show.
The result is a show that is both stupendous and shattering.