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The Little Big Things - @sohoplace

This show has the potential, if the producers play their cards right, to run and run. It would have to adapt to go out on tour: the show was designed for the @sohoplace (yes, that’s what the theatre is called) stage, and would require considerable rethinking for proscenium arch theatres. The major stumbling block, as far as I can see, is accessibility – a point explored in the musical, where a disabled physio, Agnes (Amy Trigg) talks about how “even more disabled” she becomes every time there’s a broken lift or a non-existent ramp, or indeed both. Not every theatre could even stage The Little Big Things for that exact reason.

As it was, my vantage point in the ‘second balcony’ was superior to that of most people in the stalls. All shows in this theatre are performed in the round, (technically, ‘in the rectangle’) and for this show, the stage floor comprised a huge screen (or perhaps several screens put together) on which still and moving images were projected, usually different shades and colours to suit the mood of a particular moment in the story. Ultimately, though, the story isn’t that groundbreaking, and follows the pattern of various shows in the last twenty years or so, maybe a bit longer, where everything is going relatively swimmingly (in this case, both literally and figuratively) before a critical incident comes along and irrevocably changes the course of the characters in the story, and thus the story itself.

The major plot points in the show are probably all true, with three points in mitigation. First, the show is ‘based on the memoir by Henry Fraser’. ‘Based on’ does not mean a page by page reconstruction. That’s fine, as being able to adapt is one of the points the show makes. Second, Henry, played by Ed Larkin, an actor who genuinely uses a wheelchair, and by Jonny Amies in the form of his (that is, Henry’s) younger self, can’t remember the details of the accident that put him in a wheelchair in the first place: what else can’t he recall with pinpoint accuracy? Third, the show never claims historical precision or reliability: it’s a musical, so strap in and enjoy the ride.

The production values are very high, and the musical numbers have, between them, sufficient variation in tone and emotional emphasis. The choreography (Mark Smith) seamlessly integrates British Sign Language without making it feel forced or gimmicky. But I was reminded of the recent revived revue I Wish My Like Were Like A Musical, in its observation that if, hypothetically, one’s life were indeed like a musical, you’d never need to go anywhere. Scenes would just change and you’d be in a different place.

So it was with Henry – his accident having taken place abroad meant arrangements had to be made to fly him back. That alone could have taken a scene or two: even getting a previously able-bodied person who is now disabled from the hospital to the airport, onto a flight, into a seat on the flight, and then getting him out of the flight after landing, and so on, takes considerable planning. What if he needs the toilet? All of that is, in a sense, brushed over: one minute he’s in Portugal and the next he’s in an NHS ward. It was a little while ago, the summer of 2009 to be exact – these days, there would probably have to be a scene about waiting times before even being admitted.

Anyway, such is the pace of the production that both Henry and his family seem, aside from minor and predictable bumps in the road, almost incapable of furnishing the audience with very much dramatic tension. Very occasionally, tempers fray a bit, and despite an apparently fledgling professional sporting career for Henry’s brother Will (Cleve September), it’s still dad Andrew (Alasdair Harvey) who burns the midnight oil to pay for miscellaneous modifications to the house to accommodate Henry’s wheelchair.

The importance of the family unit as a source of support is rightly emphasised, even if the triumph over adversity aspect of the story isn’t as pronounced as it is in plots without family support. Even worse than benign neglect are the stories where abuse is involved. There’s none of that here. There’s something rather beautiful about witnessing a family coming together and accepting the situation before them. For all their partying and drinking, the youngsters – Henry’s other brothers are Dom (Jordan Benjamin) and Tom (Jamie Chatterton) – display a maturity beyond their years, and I found it refreshing to witness them getting on with it.

Malinda Parris’ Dr Graham gets a decent number in the first half about the frenetic pace of working life in an NHS hospital, and while Henry’s own observations are often astute, it’s Amy Trigg’s Agnes, the sharp-minded and even sharper-witted physiotherapist, who steals the show and brings the house down. Later, the transformative story of Henry Fraser, promising rugby star, turning into Henry Fraser, mouth artist (if you are interested in the actual guy’s paintings, he's got his own website), happens a tad too quickly, and the production jumps straight to works excellent enough to be part of an art exhibition, without any examples of him getting progressively better at painting with his mouth.

I would have liked to have found out more about Henry’s life, unless there is a kernel of truth in that he didn’t have much going on apart from school, rugby, going out and fancying Katie (Gracie McGonigal, who makes the most of an underwritten role), who attends the same school. Still, it is rare to be quite so moved by a new musical, and by the curtain call, it barely matters who is in a wheelchair and who isn’t. In an ideal world, of course, that’s just how it should be. A standing ovation well deserved on the night I attended, it’s a production with a lot of heart that overshadows its imperfections.

Four stars

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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