fri 01/03/2024

The Little Big Things, @sohoplace review - real-life story movingly realised onstage | reviews, news & interviews

The Little Big Things, @sohoplace review - real-life story movingly realised onstage

The Little Big Things, @sohoplace review - real-life story movingly realised onstage

An original British musical delivers, and then some

Flying high: two versions of one aspirational self Pamela Raith photography

It's rare that a new musical or play opens in the West End with as much positive word-of-mouth as The Little Big Things. Social media has been ablaze over the last few weeks, with critics and bloggers sneaking into previews and authoritative big names hailing a new hit long before the official press night.

Fortunately much of the hype is well-founded, as this uproariously crowd-pleasing musical showcases not only a burgeoning new writing talent, but also flexes the muscles of @sohoplace as a truly accessible theatre space.

In the summer of 2009, a 17-year-old Henry Fraser joined his rugger-bugger brothers on holiday in Portugal. What should have been Henry's first adult holiday, away from doting parents turns in to a life-changing nightmare. Diving into the sea, a freak accident damages several of Henry's vertebrae leaving him paralysed from the neck down. With the help of doctors, physiotherapists and a hugely supportive family, Henry learns to adapt to his new life and re-discovers a passion for art. 

Author Joe White adapts Fraser's 2017 award-winning memoir with refreshing confidence, incorporating two versions of Henry to tell his story: Ed Larkin, who plays Henry post-accident and also acts as narrator, and Jonny Amies as the fresh-faced, aspirational teenager. Surrounded by his family and friends, the two aspects of one self define a story about courage, acceptance and adopting the mindset to move on. White's adaptation moves along at such a pace that some moments seem emotionally shortchanged, but it's the little things in Henry's new life - the green of the grass, the warmth of the sun - that make a big difference. White also laces his story with subversive humour, most successfully realised in Amy Trigg's wonderfully pitched physiotherapist Agnes. 

Linzi Hateley as Fran FraserMusically, newcomers Nick Butcher (music) and Tom Ling (music and lyrics) know how to structure a song that captures the emotional tug of the moment. The driving pop-based score is a little unrelenting, but matches the frenetic pace of the storytelling. There's certainly variety within it - pop, soaring emo-ballads and even a touch of gospel – but there's little nuance. It's almost remorselessly upbeat, focusing on the big sounds, when sometimes so much more can be conveyed in a whisper, such as the beautifully expressed "Miles And Miles", sung by Henry's father Andrew (Alasdair Harvey). 

Vocally the show is packed with talent. Linzi Hateley's seemingly indefatigable mother Fran (pictured above) fights to hold body and soul together singing the gut wrenching "One To Seventeen" as her son lies in hospital. Malinda Parris' salubrious mezzo brings the house down with the surreal party number "Uma Vida", while Gracie McGonigal also makes her mark as art-student Katie, the object of Henry's affection. 

What remains remarkable about this production is the vision that has brought it to the stage in the first place. Director Luke Sheppard (of & Juliet renown) has defiantly pushed the boundaries of accessible theatre, bringing invention, energy and flare to an already emotive story. There's barely a moment of stillness in the staging, from Mark Smith's ebullient choreography – incorporating flashes of BSL – to a thrilling coup-de-theatre that sees the wheelchair user Larkin soar through the air as he bids an emotional farewell to his past. 

The Little Big Things is by no means perfect. There are missed opportunities for musical numbers – Agnes' final speech, where she explains how to say goodbye to your former self aches to be musicalised. Also, a virtual lack of discord within the Fraser family seems oddly unrealistic, but these are moot points against such a welcome wave of positivity. Butcher, Ling and White have undoubtedly scored a hit with their first collaboration and while it may not transfer in the UK – @sohoplace is unique in its accessibility for disabled performers – surely a Broadway transfer is on the cards. 

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