THE LITTLE
BIG THINGS

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _@SOHO PLACE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _2nd MAR.

January 6, 2024

images © Pamela Raith.

Acting as both the final show this outlet viewed for 2023, and our first published review of ’24, The Little Big Things seems fitting as both a coda and forward-thinking mission statement for Nica Burns@sohoplace. The glitzy, characterful new West End venue, which completed its first full orbit last year, was a major contributing factor in Burns placing second in The Stage’s top 100 theatre figures last week (a quad of National Theatre execs just pipping her to the top spot). The Financial Times lauded her new hub of theatrical innovation as “a West End theatre with inclusivity at its heart” and, again, Big Things couldn’t be a more palpable demonstration of this.

A brand new musical offering adapted from the memoir of Henry Fraser – whose life (and burgeoning rugby stardom) was shattered overnight by a fluke accident on holiday with his brothers – The Little Big Things certainly inherits a corker of a true story, but do its theatrical aspirations and ingredients stack up to the source material, and its venue’s own zeitgeist-nabbing buzz?

It’s easy to go maudlin or mawkish when transplanting the real to the stage. Doubly so when it pivots around a story as innately stirring and emotive as Fraser’s, twinged with tragedy and pain. And of course, there remains the ever prevalent threat of tokenising disability, or being somehow reductive about its implementation. Heck, Big Things’ dramaturg and associate director, Nickie Miles-Wildin, acknowledges this, decrying what she calls ‘inspiration porn’, where disabled characters are reduced to little more than conduits of motivation for the world about them.

“…there remains the ever prevalent threat of tokenising disability, or being somehow reductive about its implementation…”

Sharply, boldly, The Little Big Things digs deeper and pans wider. It’s a show about many things; family, expression, identity, art, love. It centres mainly around the Fraser clan – mum Fran (Linzi Hateley), dad Andrew (Alasdair Harvey), brothers Tom (Jamie Chatterton), Dom (Jordan Benjamin) and Will (Cleve September) and, of course, Henry. In an inspired move, Big Things’ protagonist is dual-played, both in youthful, pre-accident guise by Jonny Amies, and everything that follows the fateful incident by Ed Larkin (notably the first time a wheelchair-user has led a West End musical).

Sure, the show doesn’t shy away from some of the sobering realities of what first appears to be a youth stymied before even his prime. The early anguish of Henry’s accident and subsequent diagnosis are blisteringly etched by a devastating Linzi Hateley. The weight and struggle of accommodating and at times even recognising this ‘new’ Henry within the family unit is delicately interwoven throughout, with every member of the Fraser family given their moment of struggle and hurt. Admirably, The Little Big Things doesn’t shy away from just how difficult the whole situation is, and yet neither does it feel laden or staid.

For, perhaps in part owing to its energised, upbeat soundtrack of poppy feel-goods from Nick Butcher and Tom Ling, a relentless undercurrent of humour and self-deprecating wit throughout Joe White‘s buoyant book, or its sheer wealth of eye-opening set pieces and innovative musical theatre moments, The Little Big Things is a big, bold, joyous tapestry of multicolour brush strokes that makes for one of the most vibrant, uplifting and tirelessly entertaining new musicals in recent memory.

From a toe-tapping, gospel-lite ode to the workers of the NHS, a bonkers Monopoly-themed night out for Henry and mum, to some of its rousing solos of introspection and determination, Big Things throbs with invention and energy. In the confines of @Sohoplace’s cosier, in-the-round fold, it manages to feel both grand and intimate at once, with director Luke Sheppard and choreographer Mark Smith delivering a punchy, pacy show that carries both the visual bombast of a full West End ticket, whilst never drowning out the quieter, powerful ebbs that land so powerfully in the new venue. Characters ascend into the rafters, ocean soundscapes and colours wash across the stage and audience both, performers ring out from the balconies. It’s transportive, imaginative and dazzling stuff.

“It’s transportive, imaginative and dazzling stuff.”

Of course, tremendous credit for this must go to the fantastic cast and ensemble. They’re universally excellent, from the Fraser family leads, through to supporting parts, such as company member Amy West stepping up and giving a barnstorming understudy turn as a soulful, kindly doctor in the performance reviewed. Jordan Benjamin gets perhaps the clearest arc and growth as the youngest of the Fraser brothers, and it’s a beautifully observed performance with stunning vocals to match, but in truth all three brothers impress.

Amy Trigg steals practically every scene she appears in as Henry’s droll, sex-positive physiotherapist, whilst Gracie McGonigal is in fine voice and a complete ray of sunshine throughout as Henry’s longstanding, sweet-natured crush. Hateley and Harvey may be consummate West End veterans from whom we’d expect terrific work, but even by their own high standards, their anguished, hopeful, proud turns as Henry’s parents are especially strong.

“Ed Larkin brings an impressive weight and sense of venerability to his Henry… Amies, meanwhile is staggeringly good… give the pair of them Oliviers, pronto.”

And, of course, the Henrys. Having the younger Henry transition to become something of a subconscious reflection of his own guilt and inability to fully accept what has happened is a canny move, with the dynamic between the two actors portraying the central role electric throughout. Ed Larkin brings an impressive weight and sense of venerability to his Henry, often the eye of the storm about which much of the anguish and fallout rages. Amies, meanwhile, is staggeringly good, absolutely tearing up the show’s biggest asks of him vocally, and navigating a trajectory from youthful boisterousness to acceptance with real gravitas and heart. The charting of Henry’s eventual new calling as an artist is meticulously, tear-jerkingly earnest, as is the denouement to their occasionally fractious back-and-forth. Give the pair of them Oliviers, pronto.

Ultimately, The Little Big Things is just that. A collection of myriad parts harmonising to create a beautiful tapestry of colour, sound, spectacle and storytelling. It is, in part, an inspiring tale of one man’s resilience, determination and, ultimately, optimism. And yet its inspiration never feels glib, tokenistic or cheap. This is a deeply human, dimensional story, awash with delight, fringed with pain, pulsing with humanity. As a theatre experience, it is bold, beautifully written, handsomely performed and dazzlingly staged.

And, as a misson statement for @SohoPlace, for Burns and for new musical theatre as a whole, it is a glorious, technicolor manifesto that, as Henry Fraser himself so admirably showcased, the best really can be yet to come.

A stirring, powerhouse beacon of what new musical theatre can do, be and say. Amies, Larkin and company invite you to soar along with them, whilst keeping you clutched close to their hearts. Vibrant, dazzling and soulful theatre.

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