The last time I openly wept in a theatre was watching Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, but the arrival of John August and Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish The Musical at The Other Palace, means that a West End show has succeeded in eliciting the same response, although in this case, it was proceeded by laughter, hilarity and pure joy. Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, which was later made in to a movie, Big Fish The Musical is a glorious celebration of life.
Edward Bloom, a former travelling salesman, is facing the end of his life, and what a life it’s been, if you believe all the tall tales he tells. His son, Will, has little time for all these stories and wants to find out the truth about his often-absent father before it’s too late. From a hospital bed, Edward recounts many of his favourite tales, which are brought to life for the audience in a series of madcap flashback sequences.
Nigel Harman has directed a stunning piece of musical theatre, the flashbacks integrate seamlessly with the present day, and then blend to marvellous effect. Andrew Lippa’s music and lyrics employ a variety of styles, from graceful ballads to rousing country and western, all topped off with Liam Steel’s contemporary choreography.
Set and Costume design from Tom Rogers is shrewdly creative, the stories are all being told from a hospital bed, and although we watch flashbacks, the medical theme bleeds in subtly. There’s a dress made from surgical gloves and the football uniforms are altered nursing scrubs, all of which are punctuated with bold block colour.
The show has the benefit of star pulling power in the form of Kelsey Grammer, who is undoubtedly a master of his craft. It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off of him, such is the enormity of his stage presence, and he is the perfect fit for the fabulist Edward Bloom, bringing the right flair to the story, and toning it down in the more serious moments.
Don’t be fooled in to thinking he is the only ‘star’ of the show though, this is very much an ensemble performance, and every single member of the cast holds an important piece in the giant jigsaw of events, from George Ure’s wonderful Zacky to Landi Oshinowo’s Witch, and not to mention the Boy character, a role shared by three talented young actors. Granted, the female leads have less to get their teeth in to, in what is essentially a father/son story, but that doesn’t stop Clare Burt, as Sandra Bloom, bringing the house to tears with ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’.
Jamie Muscato, as the young Edward Bloom is filled with naïve innocence and ambition, this story wouldn’t work without conveying the charm of Edward Bloom, and Muscato makes it easy to fall in love with Story Edward. Forbes Masson definitely has the most fun on stage, and has the audience eating out of his hands in the role of Amos (and others), portrayed with flamboyance and swashbuckling enthusiasm, no more so than in ‘Red, White and True’.
But, it is Matthew Seadon-Young who gives a breathtakingly brilliant performance as Will Bloom. Seadon-Young doesn’t have the luxury of the big theatrical numbers to sell his character, instead he must convey the agony of losing his father, whom he doesn’t really understand, through pure stage craft alone, and he does it beautifully. His final number with Grammer ‘What’s Next’, is what finally converted the remaining sniffles to full blown sobbing, and is one of the most heart-breaking, moving, and inspiring things you will ever see on a stage.
This production is considerably scaled back compared to its 2013 Broadway predecessor, but if anything, that only serves to add to its wholesome charm. Another welcome change is the introduction of Story Edward as a separate character, portrayed by a different actor, which makes it far easier to fall into the wonderment of the stories.
Big Fish The Musical pulls on every emotion imaginable, and leaves you feeling exhilarated as a result of the energy, and intensity of the fantastic cast. This is hands down, one of the best musicals to open in London this year, and we can only hope that this perfect tale doesn’t end as quickly as it’s scheduled to.