“Juke-box musicals”, which
essentially use existing songs as their musical score, may strike you as a
relatively modern theatrical phenomena – think
Like many a Berlin musical before it, The Smallest Show on Earth is determined to leave you with a smile on your face with its good hearted happy ending.
So, The Smallest Show on Earth – a new musical with old songs by Irving Berlin – has precedents, and proves to be disarmingly romantic – if not exactly more than the sum of its parts. It really shouldn’t work, of course; director and co-writer Thom Southerland merrily brings together a narrative based on a 1957 Ealing-styled British film comedy with some of Berlin’s extensive back catalogue. If, on occasions, Berlin’s smooth lyrics sound a tad off-kilter in provincial 1950s England, their vintage air at least matches the “triumph of the underdog” plot so beloved of post-war British cinema comedy.
The story focuses on newly-weds Matthew Spenser – a struggling screenwriter – and Jean, who unexpectedly inherit a down-at-heals local cinema, “The Bijou Kinema”. They initially relaunch it as a ploy to raise the neighbouring Hardcastles’ offer to buy them out but – of course – they soon succumb to its charms and those of the eccentric “family” who work there.
Haydn Oakley and Laura Pitt-Pulford are suitably likeable as the Spensers, and imbue their songs with real character and feeling. The show is undoubtedly helped by Southerland’s choice of material – the chosen songs work well in terms of both plot and character. Nor is he afraid to follow in Berlin’s own footsteps by quite radically reshaping the back catalogue for the good of the show.
Liza Goddard may lack the bumptious eccentricity of the film’s obstreperous ticket collector Mrs Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford) but, like the rest of the cast, she imbues her role with heart and feeling, using the limits of her voice as an intrinsic part of her character. Philip Rham and Ricky Butt revel as the pantomime-esque Hardcastles, but the show’s star turn is undoubtedly the lithe Matthew Crowe as the delightful show-business-fixated young lawyer Robin Carter.
Like many a Berlin musical before it, The Smallest Show on Earth is determined to leave you with a smile on your face with its good hearted happy ending. In that sense, it does feel somewhat of its time, even if it’s not clear whether that’s the late 1950s or the 1920s/30s heyday of Berlin’s work. It’s an endearing production that’s undoubtedly worth seeing, yet it somehow lacks the level of dramatic clout to seriously make us care about the characters and the fate of the Bijou Kinema, which is a shame.