Finborough Theatre Spring 2018
This 1980 musical (book by Warner Brown, music by David Heneker, lyrics by both) has some fun moments and is a showcase for some attractive performances. But its strengths are too few and its weaknesses too many for it to be a success.
We are in the era of silent films, following the parallel stories of director D. W. Griffith, who practically invented feature films, and Mary Pickford, their first big star.
The list of characters also includes Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett, Adolph Zukor – and at this point you might be checking the title above to see if we're really talking about Jerry Herman's Mack And Mabel.
We aren't, but The Biograph Girl has some of the same basic flaws of that cult favourite. Most central is lack of story.
Where Herman and writer Michael Stewart tried to create a romance between two figures whose paths crossed only briefly, Brown and Heneker openly present the lives of Griffith and Pickford separately, letting the musical break apart in alternating halves.
His story is of ambitiously stretching the new medium and creating art, only to fail financially, while hers is of trying to escape from the innocent-child roles she was typecast in and getting rich in the process.
Actually, I've just implied an irony and parallel that is barely there in the show, which has no real reason for telling these two stories together.
Meanwhile, the basic dramaturgy is clumsy, as Warner Brown repeatedly abandons any attempt to dramatise events and just has someone break the frame to tell us what happened during the years between one scene and another, or plot points are raised just to be dropped.
The celebrations for Birth Of A Nation's success are paused for two lines when someone suggests it might be racially insensitive, and then a black performer sings what is meant to be a show-stopping warning of Rivers Of Blood.
But the moment came out of nowhere, and the singer, the song and the subject disappear, never to be alluded to again.
Musicals can survive with weak books or practically none at all if the songs are good. But the Brown-Heneker songs are all forgettable – or even worse, instant reminders of better songs by others.
A comic press conference by Pickford plays like a first draft of the ventriloquism number in Chicago, Griffith's celebration of silent film's ability to communicate isn't as evocative as Sunset Boulevard's With One Look, and the title song is a bland copy of a Jerry Herman Dolly/Mame/Mabel anthem.
This production by the company Mercurius doesn't triumph over the show's limitations, but director Jenny Eastop does draw some attractive performances from her cast.
Jonathan Leinmuller invests Griffith with a gravitas and sincerity that convince us he was a serious artist, while Sophie Linder-Lee plays Pickford with a Bette Midler style and level of comic energy that is delightful.
Emily Langham gives Lillian Gish a charm, sincerity and emotional depth that carry much of what dramatic weight the show has, and Matthew Cavendish is an attractive physical clown as Sennett.
You can look forward to seeing each of these performers again in more successful shows without finding much else in The Biograph Girl to remember.
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Review - The Biograph Girl - Finborough Theatre 2018