Reviewed by Emily Schofield
25th May 2018
Reviewer rating: ★ ★ ★
The Biograph Girl made its UK debut in 1980, and after only two productions that year, hasn’t had another UK production up until this current run – nearly forty years later. Linking back to classical musical theatre whilst also taking you on a journey through cinema of the early 1900s, this show is certainly a unique experience.
Playing at the Finborough Theatre, in which the space may appear to be too small of a space for companies larger than three or four, however the nine actors of the Biograph Girl did a fantastic job of using their small staging to their advantage, creating an intimate atmosphere between the performers and the audience as this story unfolded.
The music, written by David Heneker with lyrics by David Heneker and Warner Brown, was by far the best aspect of this show. The beautifully complicated harmonies of the actors filled the small space wonderfully and were a complete joy to listen to. I especially liked the song Every Lady, in which multiple characters sang different lyrics to the same melody line which was really lovely to listen to. The music envoked the majority of the emotive power of the show, something that I think the actual story missed a beat on.
Describing the story of this show is a little complicated, unless you simply say it is the biography of pioneering director D. W. Griffith, which is very broad and doesn’t encapsulate the full experience. It felt like a lot of small separate stories being told together through the connection of film, however it frequently felt like the challenges the characters were facing were being dismissed and moved on from very quickly, which made it difficult to latch onto anything or have any sympathy for the characters. A prime example of this would be Rivers of Blood, which is sang by a Man of the South (played by Joshua C. Jackson). This song discussed the tensions that Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, caused as well as the racial tensions it invited. This plot point could have been expanded much more and had more of an impact on the rest of the story, but instead it involved one solo song and then the aforementioned tensions were never mentioned again. It made the story feel unfinished and unsatisfying, and left many loose ends by the end of the show. Maybe if the book had focused more on one of the many story lines that it used, the story could have been developed more and we as an audience could have felt more attached to the characters in their weaker moments.
Despite the issues with story, the cast still delivered a wonderful performance that I enjoyed quite a lot. The comedic timing of Matthew Cavendish in particular was brilliant throughout. However Harry Haden-Brown, the show’s musical director, was also very impressive in the show and he played piano for the entire show and was the only musical backing given to the cast whilst singing. He played the entire score himself as well as playing the small role of Spec towards the end of the second act, which was amazing!
Overall The Biograph Girl was a very interesting experience. I don’t think it’s the kind of show that large audiences would enjoy, hence being performed in such a small space, however it is a good night out and the music is well worth a listen.
The Biograph Girl plays at the Finborough Theatre until Saturday June 9th.