Little Miss Sunshine

James Lapine/William Finn
Selladoor Productions/Arcola Theatre
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Little Miss Sunshine Credit: Manuel Harlan
Little Miss Sunshine Credit: Manuel Harlan
Little Miss Sunshine Credit: Manuel Harlan

Based on the Oscar winning film of the same name, this is a new musical written by the creatives of such hits as Into The Woods, Sunday in The Park with George and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. So it’s got a good pedigree. But even the best can get it wrong sometimes.

The film was original, endearing and quirky and concerned a hapless, down-on-their-luck New Mexico family, The Hoovers, whose off-beat little girl Olive has dreams of being a beauty queen and, due to a quirk of fate, wins a place in the finals of a beauty pageant in California. But the film is really a road movie and most of the action takes place in the family’s beat-up VW Campervan as they all try and make it to the pageant against various odds and problems, not least the unreliability of the vehicle. How would that translate to the stage?

Director Mehmet Ergan has made it all minimal, making the set a flexible space painted to look like a road map, and put an open-sided facsimile of the van on a centre revolve. Basically this works, although we don’t get an idea of the landscape; the map on the back wall shows progress of the journey.

The production is then down to the actors to bring it to life and this they do fairly successfully in a humorous and poignant, if rather adult, take on the problems of family dynamics and how you deal with disappointment at any age.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a programme on the night and the web site lists three actors playing the role of Olive—‘Little Miss Sunshine’ herself. But whoever it was on the night, she took the stage and made the part her own with winsome words and some lovely expressions.

Mark Moraghan plays Grandpa with a twinkle and a swagger—a bit Robert De Niro—although he’s not really old enough and doesn’t play the part old enough to make his sudden death believable.

Lucy O’Byrne and Gabriel Vick play the rather hapless parents struggling with financial worries and the fact that their relationship has gone off the boil.

Paul Keating is Uncle Frank, newly arrived from a failed suicide attempt over a gay relationship gone wrong, and Sev Keoshgerian does a good job as the angry young brother Dwayne who spends much of the play as a selective mute but furiously texting his replies to any questions.

The music is nothing spectacular but nice enough and does tell some of the story. However, for a story about a primary-age girl, be warned that this isn’t suitable for under-14s. The content of a couple of the songs is quite adult, as is a scene with Frank’s ex-boyfriend and his new lover.

The script is funny and quite telling in places and it’s got a lot to say about perseverance and believing in your dream. There are some nice scenes, especially at the pageant with a lovely turn from Ian Carlyle and Imelda Warren-Green as the rather cringy hosts. And of course the final dance by Olive is amusing if slightly cringy too.

A good night’s entertainment if you can get over the rather inappropriate sexual references, stop comparing it to the much superior movie, and go with the flow. But don’t go if you are easily offended—and don’t take under-14s or sensitive grandmas.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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