Finborough Theatre, London – until 9 June 2018
First performed in 1980, has Warren Brown and David Heneker’s musical stood the test of time in this Finborough revival?
The Biograph Girl, directed by Jenny Eastop is a surprisingly progressive look at the silent film industry, focusing on the women who lead the way. The rise of Mary Pickford, nee Gladys Smith (Sophie Linder-Lee) and the rise of her childhood friend Lilian Gish (Emily Langham), who goes to rescue her childhood friend Gladys and instead finds herself as the muse of D W Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller), an exciting and visionary director whose love letter to the south revolutionises filmmaking but also alienates liberal Hollywood with its attitudes to race and the Ku Klux Klan.
The production has a strong book from Brown about how quickly the ‘Flickers’ changed to light and frothy entertainment, to the stories with a serious message and then back to frothy entertainment when First World War destroys the lives of its audience members. The production is full of great performances, particularly from its leads Langham and Leinmuller as the creative double act of Gish and Griffith and Linder-Lee as empowered Pickford.
Jason Morrell is Paramount’s Adolph Zukor, who gives Pickford everything she wants but it is never enough; Matthew Cavendish gives a great comedy performance as Mack Sennett, whose character is underused; and there is strong musical and acting support from the rest of the cast. Charlie Lyall’s Rose really comes into her own in the second half.
As a musical it is a bit of a mixed bag; Heneker’s catchy numbers like ‘Workin’ in Flickers’ intertwine with more serious and moving numbers such as ‘Rivers of Blood’, performed with passion by Joshua C Jackson and which show a real empathy from the writers about the issues Blacks Americans continue to face but many of the tunes are forgettable or feel unnecessary. Linder-Lee is great as the tap dancing Pickford, who finds herself at the top table with her fellow male stars, but her tap dancing number could be cut.
Holly Hughes’ choreography works well in this small space in Anna Yates simple and effective set. I did find myself wondering how the ensemble numbers would look with a bigger cast. One Long Party looks miserable with only 8 people dancing but despite its flaws, it feels a really refreshing and solid musical, let us hope this revival brings it to the masses as it deserves.