Musical theatregoers’ tear ducts have been given a thorough workout this year. First, there was Stand-ing at the Sky’s Edge, then Next to Normal, both of which put audiences through the emotional wringer. Brokeback Mountain was a play with music rather than a musical per se but it also tore at the heartstrings. There was also the revival of Aspects of Love, which made me weep but only because of how bad it was.
Now comes The Little Big Things, which is a tear-jerker in the best possible sense. It’s not sodden and sad but uplifting and hopeful. The show is a celebration of disability as something that pushes people to achieve incredible things. In an awesome theatrical metaphor said hero literally takes flight, leaving us cheering through those well-earned tears of joy.
The story is drawn from artist Henry Fraser’s autobiography of the same name. A promising young rugby player from Hertfordshire, he was 17 years old and on holiday in Portugal when he dove into the ocean, hit his head on a sea bed that was much higher than he thought it was, was paralysed from the shoulders down and, after a long period of adjusting to a new life in a chair, taught himself how to paint with his mouth.
As Ed Larkin’s Henry remarks at the beginning of this remarkable musical, it sounds like “a terrible idea for a show”. In other hands, maybe. But Joe White’s book is as comical as it is cathartic (the Fraser family on stage has pluck to spare) and, like Henry himself, it turns tragedy into inspiration.
This is music and lyricist Nick Butcher’s first theatre score, along with Tom Ling, and it’s a belter. Sure, as a blend of pop-rock and big ensemble numbers where everyone sings at full pelt, it’s indebted to Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman. But Butcher does interesting new things with the Benj Pasek/Justin Paul template, bringing some stirring gospel and Fado to the mix.
Larkin’s steely determination is contrasted by Jonny Amies’ youthful abandon as the pre-accident Henry, with both actors on stage at the same time and interacting with each other in a clever narrative conceit.
Henry’s band of brothers Jordan Benjamin, Jamie Chatterton, and Cleve September form an energetic support network, Linzi Hateley shines as his ballsy mum and Alasdair Harvey matches her as his devastated father. Malinda Parris rocks the roof as a doctor with a diva’s vocal chops and Amy Trigg is magnificently funny as a physiotherapist, whose motto is “I hurt people better” and whose use of the C-word brings the house down.
The Little Big Things is at @sohoplace, London, until 25 November. Get tickets here.