The much-anticipated new British musical gets the warmest of receptions
Centre stage of London’s newest West End theatre, Ed Larkin as Henry Fraser addresses the audience. He introduces himself and gives a brief overview of the show’s subject: at seventeen, Fraser was involved in a diving accident that caused him to be paralysed from the shoulders down. “I know what you’re thinking,” grins Larkin. “That’s a terrible idea for a musical!”
There’s relief in the laugh that follows. The structure of Soho Place, the West End’s first theatre in the round, allows audience members to see each other clearly throughout the entirety of the show. Smiles surround Larkin. We’re glad he’s acknowledged the elephant in the room. We’re ready to be wrong.
The greatest strength of The Little Big Things is in the charisma of its cast. Jonny Amies and Ed Larkin, in their shared portrayal of Henry – a choice that allows the production to bypass the all-too-common trope of having an able-bodied actor take to a wheelchair halfway through the story – are magnetic, and both incredibly easy to root for. It’s hard to say which out of Amies’ youthful, heart-on-sleeve performance or Larkin’s grounded, confident warmth is the stronger. The Fraser family are a lovable group, with Linzi Hateley particularly shining in the role of Fran Fraser, but it’s physiotherapist Agnes, played by the utterly brilliant Amy Trigg, who frequently steals the spotlight. With a straight-faced delivery, superb timing and tons of heart, she earns several individual rounds of applause from a charmed audience.
The Little Big Things, as its creators have stressed, is not supposed to be “inspiration porn”, but it naturally has its fair share of tearjerking moments, particularly as Henry comes into his own as an artist. True to the show’s title, however, its most touching moments are often small, funny interactions between Henry and his loved ones – such as when Henry is forced to ask his horrified youngest brother, Dom, to help him adjust his testicles. “I’m your brother,” shrugs Dom, after the laughs have died away and Henry has given a slightly ashamed “thank you”.
And these human moments are what take the show into standing ovation territory. Composer and lyricist Nick Butcher, and co-lyricist Tom Ling, have achieved what they set out to create – a score packed full of theatrical pop that you wouldn’t feel too surprised to hear blaring out of the radio. The energy is kept high all the way through, with Joe White’s book devoting little time to the tragedy of Henry’s situation, compared to the exploration of his life beyond. Soho Place’s unique design and the visually stunning design allows for also help to keep everything lifted. But, as should be the case with a story like this, The Little Big Things succeeds because we cannot help rooting for the people onstage.