The Smallest Show On Earth

28 October 2015

The Smallest Show On Earth, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

I love Irving Berlin. A lot more than most. Having been brought up on old Hollywood films nothing makes me happier than settling down to White Christmas or Holiday Inn, or indeed, putting on the Ritz with Top Hat. I also love distinctly British films and plays. I often feel that - whilst Hollywood can give us the old razzle-dazzle - for the kitchen sink, nitty gritty dramas, which also hold a massive place in my heart, you want a British film maker.

Which was why when The Smallest Show On Earth arrived, my curiosity was piqued. Whilst it's not exactly a nitty gritty, kitchen sink drama, the 1957 film The Smallest Show on Earth was a distinctly British comedy, and quite how that was going to all be put on the stage to a backdrop of Irving Berlin's classically American songs, I really wasn't sure. In fact, I'll say that when going to the theatre last night I was pretty filled with trepidation.

The show was so far from the disaster paint-and-glue job I was expecting.

The story centres around young couple Jean and Matthew Spenser (yes, Spenser with an S and not a C!) He is a struggling screen-writer and she is his wife - whom he's told not to get a job because he made vows to love her in front of a whole church and part of that apparently includes providing financially for her. Which makes total sense when one of the first exchanges in the show is her coming home and realising the sofa's gone - to which he replies that the bailiffs came and have taken the sofa as a part repayment of all their debts.

In true American musical theatre style all seems to just about go right when they get a phone call to say that Great Uncle Simon has died and left them his estate. In true British style, that estate, which promised riches and glory, turns out to be a bit of a run down cinema in the middle of nowhere. A bit of a rundown cinema in the middle of nowhere which is also running at a loss, has accrued it's own debts already and is competing against The Grand Cinema - a much more modern, up to date place across the road - for customers. (Hint: The Bijoux, the cinema they inherit, is losing the competition.) And along with the cinema comes the inheritance of the cinema staff - the staunch Mrs Fazacklee, who seems to be responsible for everything really; the alcoholic and irritable Percy Quill, who appears to only be around because he's the only one who can work the projection equipment, and because he's been there forty years and they can't very well get rid of him now; and Tom, Mrs Fazacklee's son, whom I'll get to later on.

And, in the other corner, we have the owners of The Grand Cinema, the Hardcastles - Albert, his second wife Ethel, and his daughter (that's his daughter with his first wife, she'd very much like you to know, she's nothing to do with Ethel!) Marlene.

And so our stage is set for a battle of two sides, one of whom (cough * Hardcastles * cough) have no morals and will stop at nothing to come out on top.

I won't tell you very much more, as I don't want to spoil the joy of watching the story unfold before you if you are going to take my advice and book, but I do need to talk about a few outstanding members of the cast.

First of all, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Jean Spenser. She had the most beautifully rich, classical voice which lent itself so wonderfully to those Irving Berlin songs and, although this musical is mostly lacking in those jaw dropping belting moments that more modern musicals all have, the few that there are are provided by Pitt-Pulford. My only complaint here would be that I didn't feel we got quite enough of this character - and that can often be the case with musicals, especially those working with a lot of characters. There was a wonderful moment where she finally exploded at Matthew 'I was not put on this earth to correct your spelling', and, when the first attempt at saving the cinema fails and Matthew bows out to go back to London and continue script-writing, it's Jean who stays and plays an integral role in the battle for best cinema. Or Kinema, as the dimly-lit sign on the Bijoux states. But overall we could tell this was a woman with mettle, and she was definitely the heroine we're all routing for.

Ricky Butt as the formidable Ethel Hardcastle is just brilliant. A true Umbridge-style character - it just wouldn't have been as good without her, as much as you also wanted to strangle her! The only problem was she never got a big villain appropriate musical number - all the best villains have them and I personally feel she's been robbed!

Matthew Crowe as solicitor Robin Carter was one of the main high points of the show, he's introduced simply as the solicitor (albeit one who doesn't want to be a solicitor and is really only doing it because his father's a solicitor and wouldn't therefore let him do anything else!) who is handling Great Uncle Simon's estate hand over to Jean and Matthew. Full of one liners and hilarious facial expressions to accompany them I found myself wishing for more stage time for him - and luckily my prayers were answered in Act 2.  He got a brilliant song and dance number that had been a long time coming, and to be honest if they wrote a spin-off musical that centred entirely around this character I'd be first in line to see it!

And lastly, I need to talk about Sam O'Rourke as Tom Fazackalee. Oh, be still my beating heart. He comes to the stage as one of those super quiet, awkward teenage boys - not helped by the fact he's lived the majority of his life in the dark of the cinema, living through films, and being mollycoddled by his over bearing mother. He has a definite soft spot for Marlene Hardcastle, played by Christina Bennington, and she seemingly has one for him - despite the fact he sat behind her in geography for a whole year and never spoke to her. This awkward, teenage Romeo-And-Juliet romance plays out in the most beautiful fashion but my heart exploded when O'Rourke got to perform Steppin' Out With My Baby. He wants to tell Marlene what would happen if they were in a movie and she says 'No. Don't tell me. Show me.' Tom begins by slipping on his imaginary tuxedo, which then gives way to the song and dance routine OF MY DREAMS. For all this musical takes Berlin's songs and puts them in Britain, the second half brings the razzle-dazzle you'd expect from a Berlin associated production - and this routine is the highlight. Lee Proud choreographed this Fred-and-Ginger-esque routine just perfectly. If I had to boil it down to one reason to see this show - it's to watch O'Rouke and Bennington perform this routine. I wish I could have that performance on video to watch whenever I feel sad as it was just so uplifting. And wonderful. And beautiful. There aren't enough words in the English-language to properly portray how I feel about this routine, so I'll just leave it here but it's one of my favourite things I've ever seen on stage.

Although this show doesn't have the stunts and big numbers that a lot of modern musicals have, it does have a fantastic cast, wonderful choreography, a roster of Irving Berlin's songs and a whole lot of charm. For fans of Fred-And-Ginger, a traditional British route-for-the-underdog story and nostalgia this show is wonderful. There's a line in the show somewhere about saying goodbye to the past - but it's thanks to shows like this that, even for a few hours, we can slip into the past. The past that never was where everyone can sing and dance and good would always triumph in the end. The past of showbiz.

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