The Big Little Things review and star rating: ★★★★
In the closing moments of The Big Little Things, the actor Ed Larkin is spun around the Soho Place auditorium in his wheelchair, swooshing around in big circles some 20 metres above the audience. It sends an empowering message and it’s hugely emotional to witness: I can’t imagine how much it must mean to the cohort of disabled people in the audience.
This is fan theatre at its best. In the interval, one disabled child leaned against a window and made notes about the first act, and by the end of the second – and it may sound like a cliche – there was not a dry eye in the room. The Big Little Things, a new piece of musical theatre based upon a memoir by Henry Fraser, sets a precedent for how thrillingly conversations about disability can and should be staged.
The Little Big Things recounts the true story of Fraser who, aged 19, went on a lads holiday and got badly injured in a sea accident, causing him to be paralysed from the neck down. It is the story of his rehabilitation, through the pangs of hopelessness to the euphoria of self-realisation.
The first half isn’t a patch on the second. By the interval, I felt I was watching a well-meaning but under-powered production that skimmed the surface of a set of characters, including Henry, without finding much emotional heft. The songs also felt twee.
But in the second act, the show becomes something else altogether. It finds its teeth, examining gritty themes with incredible gusto. There is an abstract exploration of depression, when the younger version of Fraser (he’s interpreted by two male actors, one pre-accident and one post) played by Jonny Amies spirals in mid air, thanks to some deft choreography, creating a lasting image of both mental fog and physical pain.
The thread of disabled joy goes full throttle with a particularly joyous scene where Fraser and his no-bullshit psychotherapist Agnes go clubbing in fancy dress. Mark Smith’s choreography fills the stage, creating messy, hedonistic scenes of clubbing. Here, and throughout much of the second act, Nick Butcher’s music bursts with humanity. You can’t help but grin from ear to ear. Amy Trigg, an actor with spina bifida, excels in the second act as the no-nonsense medical expert Agnes. She was formerly in her own one-woman show about her condition, Reasons You Should(n’t) Love Me, which deserves to be brought back to bigger stages.
The blander moments in this musical’s first act admittedly make for an unbalanced evening at the theatre, but the ambitiousness of Luke Sheppard’s direction, and his talented cast, demonstrates the potential for disabled storytelling, and shows how it is really still in its infancy. By the end you’re exhausted, having been pulled between laughter and tears. Did I mention how great it is to see such fully fleshed-out disabled characters? These are properly human disabled people, finally, on a major West End stage. It’s testament to Joe Write’s writing, which is brave and rule-breaking. Warning: you’ll be singing the titular track, The Little Big Things, for days after.
The Little Big Things plays at the Soho Place until 25 November