The Little Big Things

Reviewer's rating

Nica Burns, the Queen of Soho Place, has done it again, in presenting another first in her shiny new theatre: a completely new musical, by a completely new writing team, opening cold into the West End, and – building on her already formidable record of inclusivity – boasting a cast of both able-bodied and disabled actors.

The Little Big Things is based on the best-selling autobiography by Henry Fraser and tells the story of a promising young rugby player who goes on holiday to Portugal with his three brothers and, whilst diving into the sea, fails to realise the rocky under-shore and breaks his neck at the fourth vertebrae, paralysing him from the shoulders down.

The life-changing consequences of his accident have repercussions he could never have dreamed of, but also lead to a new life that he could never have realised he could have. The show deals with his coming to terms with the inevitable changes he has to face, and the impact that the accident has on his family.

The show will also, I suspect, be pretty life-changing for the creative team of Nick Butcher, Tom Ling, and Joe White whose first musical this is for all three. I have a certain number of reservations, more of which later, but what can hardly be doubted is that this is a genuine crowd-pleaser.

The role of Henry Fraser is shared by Jonny Amies and Ed Larkin, the latter from his wheelchair, but don’t infer from that fact that this is some static tale of woe. It couldn’t be further from it. It is life-affirming, and Luke Sheppard’s slick direction on Colin Richmond’s minimal set is able to finesse any irregularities in the storytelling, though White’s book is very funny and is able to carry things along on a raft of laughter.

The undoubted star for me is another wheelchair user – Amy Trigg as Agnes, Henry’s physiotherapist – whose impeccable comic squeezes every last drop of laughter from some of the funniest lines and moments of the show.

Linzi Hateley and Alisdair Harvey as Henry’s mother and father bring a much needed emotional depth to their characters, and as his brothers Jordan Benjamin, Jamie Chatterton, and Cleve September are convincingly embarrassing and embarrassed in equal measure, with Jordan Benjamin in particular having the stand-out voice of the evening.

And can there be a writer or composer who would not want to have Luke Sheppard direct their musical? He’s worked wonders finessing what could have been a disjointed series of vignettes into a smoothly flowing ensemble piece.

So, my reservations? Well, the book seems at times to be treading water. The Act One finale could equally have been an Act Two finale, but the humour of the piece largely manages to divert attention away from this. What couldn’t so easily be finessed – even with Howard Hudson’s inventive and beautiful lighting design – was the score which is more idiomatically ‘pop’ than musical theatre. When the brothers sing (and they do sing beautifully) they form up into the Fraser boy band. Elsewhere the tone veers from gospel to soft rock and isn’t anything that’s particularly memorable; there’s plenty of music, but precious little melody. Even when we get some moments which are more theatrical, such as Linzi Hateley’s solo as Henry’s mother, the performance far outshines the content.

Still, that’s a fairly minor gripe. Let the show with its message of change and battling against adversity wash over you and you’ll have a great time, it’s just that after leaving the theatre you might not be able to remember why.