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Little Miss Sunshine – A Road Musical
Book by James Lapine; music and Lyrics by William Finn
Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin St, Dalston, London E8 3DL
Until 11 May
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Young Olive has her heart set on competing in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest. When she receives a last minute invitation her parents Richard and Sheryl are stuck. They can’t leave their teenage son Dwayne (currently into Nietzsche and not speaking) alone, nor can they trust their rebel Grandpa, who has just been banished from his retirement community for dealing drugs. They are not even allowed to leave her visiting gay brother Frank (a Proust expert) alone because he’s recovering from a serious suicide attempt. The only solution is to pile them all into a rickety VW camper van, a relic from Grandpa, and hope it survives the 800 mile trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach.
Michael Arndt deservedly won an Oscar for pitch perfect screenplay for the original film. It had all the tropes of that most American of genres - the road movie - and recalled that early seventies era when mainstream American cinema was still primarily for adults. This wasn’t a quirky family but rather an ordinary one with familiar troubles but who responded to life in their unique way. For this reason it connected with audiences globally. It was intelligent, wry, feelgood without being mushy and had probably the best written part for a young girl there’s ever been.
A few years ago, the distinguished musical theatre composers James Lapine (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George), and William Finn (Falsettos, 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee) acknowledged its qualities and adapted it as a musical and the great Arcola Theatre in East London (which always punches way above its weight), has pulled off a coup in nabbing its UK premiere.
It is packed with West End talent, perhaps with a view to a transfer, with Gary Wilmot charming as ever as the dissolute Grandad and Paul Keating bringing a touching poignancy to the role of the vain, wounded uncle. Gabriel Vick is strong too as the self-help obsessed Dad and Laura Pitt-Pulford brings her usual gravity to the discontented Mom, trying to literally keep the family on the road. A lot rests on the small shoulders of Sophie Hartley-Booth, who quietly triumphs as Olive, and she manages to capture both the stillness and intelligence underneath the surface of this unlikely contestant. She knows she won’t win which makes her motivation all the more interesting. Sophie is one of three girls rotating the role, the others being Lily Mae Denman (pictured in our production photos) and Evie Gibson.
Mehmet Ergen’s staging has great momentum and is greatly aided by David Woodhead’s designs. He fashions the VW van from a rotating, tiered, platform and uses the tiny space with great finesse.
Supporting roles are also spot-on with Imelda Warren-Green hilarious as an intimidating hospital bureaucrat and a tragic ex Miss California who co-hosts the lurid pageant.
Arndt’s story gently skewered the absurdity of the self-help culture and the dissonance of those bizarre pageants but it also had a touching sympathy for the underdog and totally recognizable, fully-rounded, characters.
Here, sadly, the mostly forgettable songs stop the action and detract more than they add to it. They soften the edges of the piece and undermine the totally unsentimental nature of the original. The spirit of the piece survives though, as do this great set of ensemble performances.