Review: The Smallest Show on Earth, book by Thom Southerland and Paul Alexander; music by Irving Berlin, at Colchester Mercury until Oct 10

The Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berlin, which premieres at the Colche

The Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berlin, which premieres at the Colchester Mercury - Credit: Archant

If this show doesn’t send people out into the night with wide grins on their faces, I’ll eat my nice straw hat with a side order of boiled toad. Yes, of course it helps enormously that, with the blessing of the composer’s daughter, it soars with some of Irving Berlin’s greatest songs, but this is a little cracker in its own right.

Haydn Oakley and Brian Capron inThe Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berli

Haydn Oakley and Brian Capron inThe Smallest Show on Earth, a new musical with songs by Irving Berlin, which enjoyed good audiences at the Colchester Mercury. Is there a case for running shows on Sunday and making the Monday the day off? - Credit: Archant

What is more, though it seems a sort of sacrilege to say so, The Smallest Show on Earth is even funnier than the famous 1950s Ealing film comedy of the same name that it is based on. Thom Southerland, who co-wrote the show, also directed and the whole thing simply fizzes with originality, terrific energy and an endless supply of wonderful one-liners that keep taking you by surprise. There’s also a nice splash or two of schmaltz.

In broad outline the story is much like the movie, although Southerland has cleverly changed some of the detail to add extra musicality and drama. But, in doing so, he has kept the piece beautifully in period, right down to the thunderously jolly Wurlitzer organ music that opens the show.

It is the tale of a hard-up young couple, Matt and Jean Spencer, who think their luck has changed when they are left a cinema by a distant relative. But the Bijou at Sloughborough is totally run down, known as the fleapit, and nearby is the Grand picture house with all the latest films owned by Albert Hardcastle (Philip Rham) and his domineering missus Ethel (Ricky Butt).

When the Hardcastles welsh on an offer to buy the Bijou for five grand, the Spencers decide to tart up their little place a bit and give the Grand a run for its money and in this battle they are aided by the staff: Mrs Fazackalee (Liza Goddard), former silent move pianist and manageress, her un-uniformed commissionaire son Tom (Sam O’Rourke) and Percy Quill (Brian Capron), the never-sober projectionist.


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Berlin’s songs slot perfectly into the piece, almost as if they had been written for it. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Haydn Oakley as the Spencers, get to sing the lovely ballad Always and Blue Skies and the whole cast turn Shaking the Blues Away, Steppin’ Out With My Baby and It’s a Lovely Day Today into special dance production numbers.

In order to capture an audience, the Bijou returns part-time to its original palace of varieties role, staging sparkling music hall turns, not least a hilarious song from Matthew Crowe, the Spencer’s solicitor in drag and a nice Let Yourself Go from Christina Bennington as the Hardcastle’s rebellious daughter Marlene.

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Every one of the cast of 14 is in good voice and it comes as a nice surprise that long-time straight actress Liza Goddard in the central role of Mrs Fazackalee can carry a song with the best of them.

David Henshall.

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