Saturday 30th March 2019, matinée
Little Miss Sunshine seems like perfect material for William Finn – it’s a quirky film full of dark humour, and continues the theme of child exploitation which he explored in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Here it is the world of beauty pageants with the unlikely heroine Olive showing her dysfunctional family the meaning of the word optimism. There is luxury casting here too in the form of Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Paul Keating.
Based on the 2006 film, this is a classic feel-good plot, given a ‘makeunder’ and a dose of reality as the hopelessly chaotic Hoover family attempt to get their daughter Olive to the regional finals of the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ beauty pageant in a beaten up old minivan. With Mum Cheryl and Dad Richard already feeling the strain, brother Dwayne under a vow of silence, and Grandpa now homeless having been kicked out of his retirement home for taking drugs, they are joined by Cheryl’s brother Frank, who needs to be kept an eye on due to his recent suicide attempt (‘Don’t worry’, she reassures the kids, ‘He didn’t try very hard’).
So, with an amusing premise, interesting characters and the comedic potential of a road trip, what could possibly go wrong? The production team have given themselves a massive challenge to stage a road trip in the small space of the Arcola theatre, and it is a tribute to Mehmet Ergan’s directorial skills that he manages to make such a slick job of it, but it is difficult to keep the momentum going. Although the dialogue is snappy with plenty of witty lines, there are also longueurs that could probably have been cut.
The next question would be, what, if anything, does the music add to the story? Music should be a short-cut to the emotions and perhaps illuminate the relationships, but here the songs seem to hold up the action. There are too many characters vying for attention, but no individuals have enough depth to sustain the solo songs, which also seem a bit thin. There doesn’t seem to be a unifying theme or a character arc for the family. Considering the show is all about the tawdry glamour of talent shows, we couldn’t help feeling there were some missed opportunities here.
The cast were excellent overall, and it was hard to fault the ensemble playing. We did feel that Laura Pitt-Pulford was a little under-used – perhaps if William Finn had been more involved he might have written her an extra number to show off her considerable talents. Paul Keating, last seen by us in the Goodbye Girl, brings a melancholic and neurotic edge to the show, nicely offset by Gary Wilmot’s outrageous Grandad – it’s a gift of a part and he enjoys it to the full. The supporting cast also provides a few gems – Ian Carlyle as the compere perfectly captures the small-time, preening local businessman looking for glory, whilst Imelda Warren-Green gives us the world’s most unempathic ‘bereavement co-ordinator’, and a beauty queen whose estimation of her own talent is optimistic at best.