Long before the first multiplex was built we enjoyed sitting in our local fleapit watching great movies from the discomfort of a moth-eaten lumpy seat, surrounded by a fug of cigarette smoke.
If you were lucky there would the bonus of a Wurlitzer organ rising from the pit, a second-reeler and a Kia Ora in the interval bought from an usherette standing at the front of the stalls.
Those were the days.
Director, young Thom Southerland, enjoyed the same experiences by watching some classic black and white cinema, from the likes of Ealing or British Lion, and escaping into the wonderful world of the Hollywood musical, though probably on a retro night or via DVD.
He has poured his passion into the charming, whimsical and somewhat sentimental new musical, The Smallest Show On Earth, which opened tonight at the Wycombe Swan, and it shows in every scene.
Back in the 1950s the movie of the same name, about a couple striving against the odds to save a shambolic old cinema from closure, featured the cream of British comedy talent including Peter Sellers, Margaret Rutherford and Bernard Miles, with the husband and wife played by Virginia McKenna & Bill Travers.
The stage version comes with the bonus of songs from Irving Berlin. It’s as though Southerland has gathered up his favourite songs and, astonishingly, been given the rights to use them in this show. How lucky can you get?
Names Brian Capron and Liza Goddard play drunken projectionist Percy Quill and eccentric organist and bookkeeper Dorothy Fazackalee but this is very much an ensemble piece with everyone contributing their own moments of magic and romance to the story.
The owner of The Bijou Kinema dies during a drinking competition and the debt-ridden business is left to struggling screenwriter Matt Spenser and his wife Jean.
They’re shocked at the rundown state of the cinema but decide to try and make a go of it, albeit in the short-term, in a face of competition from the luxurious Grand, run by hard-nosed business couple Albert and Ethel Hardcastle.
Will the underdogs turn the fleapit around and make the Bijou a picture palace? Will Jean and Matt find happiness, will Percy and Dorothy or, in fact, will Dot’s shy film fan son, Tom and the rivals’ daughter Marlene?
Irving Berlin’s music adds to the fantasy, providing segments of glitzy razzle dazzle. The endearing Tom’s Astaire moment, Steppin’ Out, with the lovely Marlene, is simply delightful .
Laura Pitt-Pulford and Hadyn Oakley, as the Spensers, make a lovely, quintessentially English couple, him slightly drippy and her the very essence of efficiency (ain’t it always so?) – and they have the most tremendous voices.
There is admirable support from a charismatic Matthew Crowe as stage-struck young solicitor, Robin, and Sam O’Rourke as the innocent and naïve Tom. Crowe lights up the stage with a megawatt smile and lashings of personality while Mr O’Rourke is entirely credible as the hapless youngster.
Ricky Butt’s scheming Ethel Hardcastle is somewhat clichéd but the nearest thing to a villain in this 1950s melodrama.
The Smallest Show On Earth is quirky and delightfully old-fashioned but refreshing and hugely entertaining.
Running at Wycombe Swan until Saturday, October 24, then touring.
- The Smallest Show On Earth
The Smallest Show On Earth is quirky, sentimental and delightfully old-fashioned but refreshing and hugely entertaining.