The Little Big Things

In October 2022, theatre impresario Nica Burns opened @sohoplace, the first new theatre to be built in London's West End for 50 years. Her plan was to bring a “different dimension” to Theatreland.

It will make your heart beat a little faster and your smile stretch a little further

As the venue turns one, it is home to new musical, The Little Big Things, which has just had its run extended until March 2024. The show is an uplifting celebration of life, and of living, and it feels right at home in the modern surroundings of @sohoplace. Intimate and poignant, yet energised by a predominately young cast and creative team, this is a musical that could well have been written to fit Burns’ original brief.

Surprisingly Uplifting

Based on the memoir by Henry Fraser, the story unfolds around a tragic event. Whilst on holiday with his brothers – and for the first time, without parents – aspiring rugby professional Henry dived off their boat. Misjudging the depth of the water, he hit the sea floor and cracked a vertebra. It left him paralysed from the neck down, with no chance of ever regaining mobility. He was just 17.

So far, so devastating. However, the story goes on to be surprisingly uplifting as we see Henry and his family get to grips with this new and unexpected world. Henry became a ‘mouth artist’, having learnt to paint by holding a specially adapted brush in his mouth. You can see the work of the real Henry here

We see blame, guilt, and recrimination spread through the entire Fraser family as their close unit begins to crack and dissipate. Though they do find the strength, the Frasers aren’t superheroes. We can easily imagine ourselves acting as they do if we experienced something similar.

It’s perhaps to be expected, but your emotional response to The Little Big Things is likely to be exponentially linked to your own life's familial structure. I doubt any mother of sons will escape tears. But, while a single childless man will sympathise, the Kleenex will probably remain unused.

Mostly Moving

Here we have two Henrys. There’s the ambitious, life-loving, slightly geeky, pre-accident Henry, played by Jonny Amies, who exudes gleefulness like a pheromone. His voice has great power and range and he comfortably leads most of the solo numbers, while carrying harmonies for the group pieces. Onstage he has an infectious zest for life. Cut this boy and he will probably bleed musical theatre. (Though please, don’t try to confirm this assumption).

The more sombre, life-questioning, still slightly geeky, post-accident Henry, is given a 'mature before his years' presence by Ed Larkin, whose likeability immediately has the audience in the palm of his hand. Larkin’s performance is naturally more sedate than his counterpart, but their singing talent is well-matched.

The two interact as Henry tries to understand, or accept, or “get over” the life-changing moment. It's a simple way of showing Henry’s internal voice, and both actors do a convincing job. Mostly moving, when it does become mawkish – such as when they mime in reflections to show “Henry Now” discarding “Henry Then”, which gave me goosebumps of embarrassment – the moments are brief and quickly forgotten.

Half-sketched Characters

The surrounding characters are a bit of a mixed bunch. The performances are generally fine, but restricted by characters that feel little more than outlines.

The emotional bonds between a close family are assumed, rather than demonstrated. The relationship Henry has with his three brothers (Jamie Chatterton, Jordan Benjamin, and Cleve September) exists on a foundation of back-slapping and scrum-forming. The tragedy brings together and drives apart Henry’s parents, Fran (Linzi Hateley) and Andrew (Alasdair Harvey), but not due to any specific event. They are assumed narratives that we accept because we expect.

Outside of the family, there are more half-sketched characters. Physio Agnes is the positive representation of disability and Amy Trigg clearly enjoys having all the best comedy lines. But with lines that demand nothing more than a wry eyebrow, she is straitjacketed into what becomes repetitive and one-note.

For no discernible reason, Agnes has a boyfriend, Marco (Tom Oliver). When he appears, or if his name is just mentioned, the cast shout ‘Marco’. (Why?) Marco’s role seems to be as an outlet for innuendo. (Why?) At a Monopoly-themed fancy dress, he wears a phallus-adorned black body suit, and announces he has come as ‘Pick-a-Willy Circus'. (For the sake of God, why?) Then he leaves.

I wondered if I had only dreamt Marco. I can think of no other explanation for his existence.

The characters all feel very first draft and not yet thought through. Some are more like drafts they forgot to discard. The audience needs to either fill the glaring gaps themselves, or just look away and pretend they aren’t there.

Pleasant Palatable Pop

And so, to the music. It is a musical after all.

The songs are an enjoyable mixed bag of pleasant, palatable, pop. It’s Boy Band Lite (TM), inoffensive but lacking anything unique. It is unlikely you will catch yourself humming to an earworm on the way home. Though maybe the title song will do its best as we are encouraged to clap along to the show's closing number.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a reflection of the consumable pop made to be enjoyed today and discarded tomorrow, and very much in line with the tastes of the TikTok generation.

The role of the song also varies. Some songs are narrative, with characters shifting from speech to song mid-line, while those around them continue to speak, as though deaf to the music. Other numbers sit outside the action, providing comment or sharing emotion.

Both approaches are common to musicals. But it can jar when they jump about like this. At times, it makes the concept a little comical.

Occasionally, a song makes comment outside plot. Gospel number Work of Heart is belted out by surgeon Dr Graham (Malinda Parris). It’s a performance that recalls Queen Latifah’s I Know Where I’ve Been from Hairspray. But the lyrics (‘my blood type is caffeine; my guilty pleasure is sleep’) are a sub-par “NHS staff are good but pay is bad”. The song gets cheers. We agree with the message. But it’s nothing new. And it’s nothing relevant.

Regroup, Refresh, Revise

There are clearly shortcomings in this production of The Little Big Things. But shortcomings can be overcome. They shouldn’t – and won't – do anything to undermine the importance of the show. These are niggles that may be expected from a relatively inexperienced creative team.

Let's not forget this is the first musical written and scored by Nick Butcher, Tom Ling and Joe White. No small achievement.

If the team were to regroup, refresh. and revise a number of small points, it could turn what is an undoubtedly good show into an unarguably great show.

As it stands, on balance, The Little Big Things is a show whose whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

It is worthy without being preachy. It is enlightening but also, importantly, enjoyable. It will pick you up if you’re feeling down. It will make your heart beat a little faster and your smile stretch a little further. If theatre is something you must see, this is must-see theatre.

The Little Big Things feels not just like a show that could only exist now, it feels like a show that needs to exist now.

Visit Show Website

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

An extraordinary true story about an ordinary young man.

When one moment changes everything, Henry finds himself split between a past he no longer recognises and a future he can’t even begin to imagine. As he learns to navigate this new world, can he find a way to take control of his life, and keep his family from falling apart?

Based on the Sunday Times best-selling autobiography by Henry Fraser, The Little Big Things is a new British musical with an explosive theatrical pop soundtrack in a world premier production.

This uplifting and colourful new musical is a life-affirming story of courage, transformation and a reminder that it’s the little things that really do matter the most.

Featuring music by Nick Butcher, lyrics by Nick Butcher and Tom Ling and Book by Joe White. Following his Olivier Award winning and Tony nominated production of & Juliet, and Fringe to West End hit, My Son’s a Queer, Luke Sheppard directs The Little Big Things.

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