FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Mehmet Ergen, originating in his Arcola Theatre in Dalston, this adaptation – of the film Little Miss Sunshine with book by James Lapine (the film’s director) with music and lyrics by William Finn, tours nationally. David Woodhead’s stylish raised platform is given a musicians’ gallery (five, led by Arlen McKnight on keys) with a gantry doubling as a viewing platform briefly. The lower platform too is overlaid by Richard Williamson’s lighting. Olly Steel’s sound design isn’t too loud – lyrics are pinpoint – and Anthony Whiteman’s chorography has characters elegantly dancing on a pin. Till June 15th.
Of the many wonderful things to have come out of Mehmet Ergen’s Arcola Theatre in Dalston, this adaptation – of the film Little Miss Sunshine – must be the most unexpected. Directed by Ergen himself – someone at home in his recent Gorky/Chekhov Revolution season and so much else – we’re reminded too of Grimeborne, Arcola’s opera and music theatre season.
Still, there’s something of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at the heart of this sunspot. A little girl from Albuquerque wins be default the chance to perform in a Little Miss Sunshine competition in California. By default too, her whole family come with her. Each has either failed or fails in their dream as the musical goes on. Sounds gloomy? It’s strangely consolatory, sadly uplifting.
David Woodhead’s stylish raised platform is given a musicians’ gallery (five, led by Arlen McKnight on keys) with a gantry doubling as a viewing platform briefly. The lower platform continues the yellow and wavy dark-brown stripes overlaid by Richard Williamson’s lighting. With the addition of a few colour-coded chairs, and the frame of a bus, the banana yellow. Olly Steel’s sound design isn’t too loud – lyrics are pinpoint – and Anthony Whiteman’s chorography has characters elegantly dancing on a pin, that small saffron striped space. Occasional updating’s in evidence, which freshens the story discreetly.
Despite the litany of average failures, it’s an unorthodox family. Lucy O’Byrne who has one of the two best voices, is Sheryl Hoover, the one who keeps her family together. In a touching backstory halfway through, we learn this bright bookish ambitious young woman fell pregnant to a football wannabe, Gabriel Vick’s Richard.
The result, their son Dwayne – Sev Koeshgerian – has vowed silence till he’s allowed his dream of applying to be a fighter pilot. It’s lasted 85 days so far. Grandfather Hoover – Mark Moraghan – has been interested in sex and porn till he takes a more straightforward shine to his granddaughter Olive (here the winning, adroitly gawky Sophie Hartley-Booth).
And finally Sheryl’s brother Frank (Paul Keating) who Sheryl transferred all her love of books and academic ambition, has attempted suicide: when a research student rejected him for someone else who beat him to a Chair in Proust. Intellectually and sexually beaten, he’s attempted suicide and is now on watch. He at least can tell Dwayne that his obsession with Nietzsche is futile.
Richard’s anxious that his possible deal with an agent to sell his blog about being made redundant into a book will misfire if he’s not around. Olive’s convinced she’s not good enough and to confirm that the Mean Girls dance round her – Alicia Belgarde, Elena Christie, Scarlet Roche – invisible to everyone else.
The road out’s not easy for Frank either, bumping into his crush Josh (Matthew McDonald) and rival professor Larry (Ian Carlyle, the other great voice). The conference he’s no longer interested is down the road. The excruciating part where he’s had to buy hetero porn for Grandpa Hoover and found out by the triumphant lovers, is omitted. There are times this musical does pull back from the remorseless bleakness of the movie, just a little.
When they arrive there’s a surprise departure as it were. Carlyle, now the viciously smiling Buddy who almost succeeds in banning them (8 minutes late) and the kinder Kirby (McDonald) no enjoy other roles. Carlyle’s also the smiling doctor and Imelda Warren-Green’s funeral admin Linda is a horrid joy in control freakery, who also gets her part as Miss California, and Dolores her winning torch-song: another moment for Warren-Green’s talent for portraying people in restricted mode.
If you don’t know this musical, there’s surprises, bleakness and affirmations ahead. /if you know the film, you might miss its bite and dance at the end, which is milder here. But it would be difficult and more to attempt what the film does, without intimacy directors, chaperones and the like. The sense is abundantly conveyed.
The music’s intelligent, very much privileging the clarity of lyrics with fine if not memorable tunes: think of a cross between Sondheim and Cy Coleman. Each have their chance to shine, and acting – winningly from Harley-Booth – is uniformly fine. Moraghan’s excellent and grittily warm, even if he’s dangerously close to eprv. Vick’s still a youthful blink-and-missed football wannabe, full of ten steps and over-determined positives: unreconstructed in fact. Keating cuts a voice of sanity, Keogerian a sudden raucous yawp of disbelief but increasing maturity as frank takes him under his wing,. Carlyle’s memorable as singer and oleaginous actor, with a sovereign tone. McDonald and Warren-Green relish their opposing parts.
It’s O’Byrne who deserves plaudits for her layered personality, her aching nostalgia for something to go right, and acuity at dealing with others’ madcap ideas. Hartley-Booth sashays between pushing vocal rawness to places it shouldn’t go, and delivering routines ditto. She’s consummate: it takes real talent to bring off rawer edges than you have at such an age. It’s a quiet heartbreaker, with stoicism and love the only answers. Do see it.