Finborough Theatre, London – until 9 June 2018
“Put it in the tissue paper” sings the cast of The Biograph Girl in its wistful closing number “they won’t want that shadow till another day” and there you have both the motif for the end of the silent film era, and the redundancy of this slight musical based on its heyday.
David Heneker and Warner Brown wrote this in 1980 when it ran for less than two months at the Adelphi. I saw it, it was sweet: it might have had further life had it not been for the fact that Denis Quilley and Imelda Staunton appeared in Mack & Mabel in 1981 in Nottingham and caused local skating sweethearts (in scary mustard outfits) Torvill and Dean to borrow its Jerry Herman score and win Gold at the World Ice Dance Championships.
Apart from the fact Mack & Mabel was written six years earlier than The Biograph Girl, comparisons are inevitable: many of the same characters appear in both stories, Mack Sennett sings ‘I Just Want to Make the World Laugh’ scored by Herman, and ‘I Just Wanted to Make Him Laugh’ to Heneker’s tune. In a review, it’s not enough to say that Mack & Mabel is simply better, you need to know why.
The Biograph Girl has interesting characters – Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett – but in the musical there’s no connection between their stories and appear sequentially to sing their defining solos like dolls on a conveyor belt. Whereas Mack & Mabel has a strong romantic involvement between the two flawed central characters and sticks with it throughout the tortuous plot, The Biograph Girl has none.
The plot runs to 1928 and so covers the founding of United Artists – in 1919 by Griffith, Pickford and both Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks who don’t appear: Pickford should be a champion of the #MeToo generation for being the first female studio boss long before Lucille Ball – and surely the Fairbanks-Pickford romance was worthy of inclusion, especially as they’d been married for eight years by the end of this musical?
All of which is a shame because yet again I find myself bemoaning weak material while applauding excellent performances. In the cast of nine, everyone is engaging, focused and talented with tremendous collective energy – ex-Glinda Sophie Linder-Lee makes Mary a likeable combination of winsomeness and steel and her powerhouse vocals would surely give Laura Pitt-Pulford a run for her money as Mabel, Matthew Cavendish is a superb one-man Keystone movie in his depiction of the underwritten one-dimensional Sennett.
Jonathan Leinmuller is a splendidly laid-back D W Griffith even if his best scene is unwritten and offstage when his epic movie Birth of a Nation – the Hamilton of its day – is considered by some to be disrespectful to black Americans, and there are riots.
It’s a chamber piece in a tiny space and so you might expect no more than Harry Haden-Brown’s capable keyboards which complement some first class harmonies from strong unmiked voices, but it’s ironic that a musical about the visionary David Griffith who hired the Philharmonic Orchestra to play the score for Intolerance, has no band and not a single projected image.
There were 41 in the audience, almost maximum capacity – including at least six people with notebooks who’d obviously got in for free, and co-author Warner Brown. Tickets are £18. There are nine in the cast and a pianist as well as a director, stage manager and choreographer to pay. They don’t get the bar revenue. How does this place make money?