THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 15th October, 2015
It is commonplace these days to adapt popular films for the stage, often as musicals. Here the 1957 Ealing Comedy (which starred Peter Sellars and Margaret Rutherford) gets the jukebox musical treatment but all the songs are written by the great Irving Berlin. Standards like Blue Skies and What’ll I Do flesh out the action of this utterly charming period piece.
Struggling screenwriter Matthew Spencer (Haydn Oakley) inherits a cinema in a provincial town. The place is on its uppers, thanks to the underhand tricks of the owners of rival cinema, the Grand. Spencer and his wife Jean (Laura Pitt-Pulford) plan to tart up their picture house in order to get a better offer from the rivals, Albert and Ethel Hardcastle. But the Spencers soon find themselves emotionally attached to the old place and the Hardcastles have a fight on their hands.
It’s all good, clean fun, steeped in the sepia tones of nostalgia and brought to life by a likeable and energetic ensemble. Haydn Oakley is a rich-throated crooner but the superb Laura Pitt-Pulford steals the limelight – her solos are showstoppers and a treat for the ears. Matthew Crowe is delightful as camp solicitor-turned-drag-artiste Robin Carter and Ricky Butt is suitably booable as the snooty and conniving Ethel. Sam O’Rourke’s naïve Tom, a walking encyclopedia of cinematic trivia and the Hardcastles’ lovely daughter Marlene (Christina Bennington) bring the house down with Steppin’ Out With My Baby, in which Lee Proud’s choreography brings to mind the wonderful Gene Kelly.
Liza Goddard brings comedy and melancholy as Mrs Fazackerlee, former silent movie pianist, while Brian Capron (having abandoned teaching woodwork at Grange Hill comp) manages to be both scruffy and dashing as drunken projectionist Percy Quill. Musical Director Mark Aspinall and the rest of his sextet play sublimely the irresistible jazz arrangements and swing rhythms of the superior-quality score. David Woodhead’s set evokes the shabby grandeur of the picture house, enhanced by atmospheric lighting designed by Howard Hudson.
Director Thom Southerland captures the innocence of the era, delivering a feel-good piece that’s all warm and cosy like slipping into a warm bath. It’s sweet, funny and charming, an unadulterated delight. And there’s nothing wrong with that for a great night out at the theatre. You may also read more into it, if you’re that way inclined. The piece reeks of ‘British values’ in the best possible sense: fair play and rooting for the underdog, decency, loyalty and pulling together in the face of underhand tactics and dirty tricks. The villains of the piece are those who seek to make profits by whatever means they deem necessary – and that’s something worth keeping in mind in these days under a government inebriated by the will to privatise everything they can get their mitts on.