VENUE: The Other Palace, London

PRODUCTION RUN: Wed 1 Nov - Sun 31 Dec 2017


There are a real abundance of analogies you can hurl in the direction of Big Fish the Musical when assessing its successes as a piece of theatre, doubly so when you throw in the much-hyped (and equally marketed) presence of Frasier star Kelsey Grammer making his London debut in the lead role.

‘Grammer is the big fish in a small pond here’ some have cited, seemingly forgoing originality in favour of base observation.

‘The production is smaller than the star would suggest’, others have chimed, again as though some particularly cutting or astute thought is at work.

What seems to be escaping the auspices of many who have chimed in with their occasionally self-satisfied homilies and quips, though, is just how very conscious and considered all of these factors in Big Fish seem to be.

In fact, the confines of the more intimate, off-West End theatre housing Fish (the recently renamed ‘The Other Palace’, formerly the Victoria St. James), coupled with the decision to filter Daniel Wallace’s whimsical novel through a more pared-back, singular location make the creative choices here sing beautifully.

Edward Bloom (Grammer) is a spirited, colourful man renowned for his tall tales of fantastical adventures and deeds earlier in life. They sit ill with his pragmatic, no-nonsense son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young), particularly as he prepares to wed the love of his life and (spoilers) begin a family of his own.

As tensions heighten and Edward’s health takes a turn for the worse, he finds himself trapped within a hospital ward and forced to navigate both the friction with his son whilst simultaneously recalling the great tales and adventures of his youth that apparently made him the man he is today.

And therein lies the crux of this more modest take on John August and Andrew Lippa’s musical adaptation of the story. Susan Stroman’s lavish, big budget Broadway offering of the same show opted to lean on the fantastical - offering extravagant set pieces and attempting to recreate the same scope of magic and wonderment as Tim Burton achieved in his 2003 film adaptation, but the end result bombed and closed after less than a hundred performances.

Fast forward a few years, and director Nigel Harman and company present a very different approach to the source material, framing the real heart and soul of the piece - its family dynamics - in the process.

There’s also something deceptively clever and effective in how the numerous flashback scenes, which explore Bloom’s tall tales and range from an encounter with a soothsaying witch to saving an entire town from floods, are depicted in a very makeshift, almost improvisational manner, and almost all viewed from within Bloom’s hospital ward. At surface, it’s easy to write it off as simply production (specifically budget) limitations, but Harman has made this work completely within the scope of the story being told.

For a show that is all about questioning the legitimacy of its fantastical tales, and what they reflect of the man telling them, this more pared-back, frills-and-all approach synchronises perfectly. It’s as though the flashbacks could potentially be envisaged as in-universe re-enactments, the rough edges bouncing perfectly off of questions of how accurate or truthful they even are, and the confines of Bloom’s hospital ward now the parameters of his entire universe.

It also ties in well with the countless postmodern flourishes and breaking of the fourth wall that the book suggests, as Edward and his family find themselves dragged directly into the ‘re-enactments’ of his tales.

Yes, occasionally it is hard to not find yourself yearning for some of the more outlandish moments to be more fully realised on-stage (the initial encounter with ‘Karl’ the Giant initially asks for a lot of go-with from the audience), but to do so would really betray the heart and focus of this particular interpretation of the show. 

And besides, there are a handful of numbers - such as the ever-reliable Landi Oshinowo once again tearing up the stage and belting out some fantastic vocals in her ‘Witch’ sequence, not to mention a truly madcap, everyone-on-stage Act II opener - that will definitely scratch some of those bigger West End itches.

As mentioned though, this is a cleverly (and surely deliberately) restrained take on a show which has already in the past gotten bogged down and lost in higher production values. Here, it is about Edward and family first and foremost, and his fantastical adventures, whilst fun and frequently resonant, play out almost as micro slices of theatre-within-theatre itself.

Which, naturally, puts the burden heavily on the shoulders of Grammer and his co-stars.

Clare Burt is soft and empathetic as Bloom’s wife Sandra, caught in difficult circumstances and clashes between father and son. Frances McNamee is a likeable stage presence as daughter-in-law and expectant mother Josephine, whilst in flashback Jamie Muscato grounds the madness with a mature, dignified performance and some of the evening’s best vocals.

Matthew Seadon-Young is terrific as the conflicted Will, adding real pathos and empathy to a frustrated character who could very easily come across cold and detached. Seadon-Young’s journey and the trajectory of his performance are one of the show’s most rewarding and enjoyable aspects.

And then there is Grammer’s Edward Bloom. On stage from the off, it is a sublime marriage of performer and role. Adopting the southern tang of Albert Finney from the Burton film is about the only similarity here; Grammer takes the role and runs with making it his own. The moments between him and wife Sandra are poignant, deeply affecting and beautifully observed, whilst he carries the lighter and more fantastical beats of the show with an irrepressible bounce, charisma and energy befitting the character. Come the high drama of ‘This River Between Us’, as Grammer rages with Seadon-Young, the sheer intensity and fire on stage rounds out what is a joyous, tour-de-force performance, and confirms Grammer’s London debut as an absolute must-see this Christmas.

Musically, Andrew Lippa’s score is mostly light and frothy, but is laced with heart and purpose. Yes, much like the show as a whole, it is occasionally overly gooey and saccharine, and some of the numbers seem to be over before they even get started, but there’s a lot to like here, too - ‘Red, White and True’, ‘Out There On The Road’ and simple-yet-effective ditty ‘Fight the Dragons’ to name but a handful.

Those going in to Big Fish the Musical expecting an opulent dark fantasy full of spectacle and effects a la the movie, or an extravagant, big-budget West End musical experience will likely walk away disappointed. But such is not the experience Fish seems intended to be, nor should be embraced as such. 

Rather, it is a moving, funny, charming exploration of family, parenthood, life, death and much of what lies in between. Chances are you will be amongst those sobbing come the denouement. By stripping the show back to its core focus, and taking such a novel yet fitting approach to location and the show’s flights of fancy, Harman and his cast have distilled Fish down to its raw, beating heart. And, buoyed by terrific performances across-the-board, not least of all a show stopping, heart-wrenching lead turn from Kelsey Grammer, proves itself to be, much like Bloom himself, a real one-off, a curio and indeed a very big fish in a deliberately - and beautifully purposeful - small pond.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 020 7087 7900  Official Website: Click Here

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