THE Finborough’s production of The Biograph Girl is a delightful affair, worthy of a bigger stage.
Given a fresh lick of paint by the musical’s original writer Warner Brown, this revival – after a 38 year absence – is an absorbing piece of theatre, chronicling the transition from silent to talking movies in the early 1900s. There are good songs aplenty, some mighty fine acting, a little bit of mime and even some pretty smart tap dancing thrown in for good measure. It is full of the feel good factor (and don’t we all need a little bit of that).
At its centre is David Wark Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller), often described as the father of film. A quite brilliant director who spares no expense to get his films off the ground – and who has to move west from New York to stop being driven out of business by hoodlums.
Yet Griffith is fighting something of a losing battle. The master of the silent movie, he is reluctant to accept that the cinematic world is changing – from flickers to talkies. Although his The Birth of a Nation (1915) is considered a masterpiece, Intolerance (1916) is less well received. His debts begin to go off the scale, causing his finance man Epping (Joshua C. Jackson) great angst.
Mary Pickford (Sophie Linder-Lee), the actress he nurtured as The Biograph Girl (and who was previously known as Gladys Smith), has gone on to make herself a fortune at Paramount where she has its boss Adolph Zukor (Jason Morell) wrapped around her little finger. Every money demand she makes is grudgingly accepted by Zukor. Pickford’s replacement is Lillian Gish (Emily Langham) who seems in love with Griffith but is jettisoned when times get tough.
The play’s climax brings Pickford and Griffith together at a Hollywood party hosted by Rose (Charlie Ryall) who was previously Griffith’s right hand woman. Pickford, dripping jewellery. Griffith on his uppers. Pickford encouraging Griffith to jettison his high ideals and embrace the talkies. ‘No words, no pictures Mr Griffith,’ says Pickford. ‘It’s as simple as that.’ Griffith accepting the inevitable.
The choreography (Holly Hughes) of the show is amazing as is the directing (Jenny Eastop). How the 12-strong cast squeeze onto the stage defies logic but somehow they do. The singing is exceptional with Leinmuller and Linder-Lee leading from the front. But some of the supporting cast – the likes of Lillian’s mother Momma (Nova Skipp) and Lillian’s Dorothy (Lauren Chinery) –are not far behind, leaving their hearts on stage.
Special mentions for Linder-Lee’s tap dancing, Matthew Cavendish’s miming of a fireman (he plays king of comedy Mack Sennett) and the musical direction of Harry Haden-Brown.
The Biograph Girl is an exuberant production which if there is any justice in this world should transfer to the West End.
Catch it if you can – and tap along with a smile on your face.
The Biograph Girl runs until June 9.