Why is Kelsey Grammer starring in the low key, off-West End UK premiere of flop Broadway musical ‘Little Fish’?
That’s not a rhetorical question: I’d genuinely love to know. The erstwhile Doctor Frasier Crane may not be Taylor Swift famous these days, but it’s hard to imagine that he’s doing a two-month-stint at The Other Palace because they made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Equally difficult to entertain is the idea that he’s out here because he’s such a fan of the material. He is genuinely very good as Edward Bloom, the tall tale telling protagonist of John August and Andrew Lippa’s musical, adapted from Daniel Wallace’s novel (which also spawned a middling Tim Burton film). But ‘Big Fish’, whilst reasonably charming, is really a minnow in the musical theatre ocean.
It starts well. We’re in sultry Alabama, and Edward’s neurotic son Will (Matthew Seadon-Young) is about to get married. He begs his father not to make a speech at the ceremony – advice Edward cheerfully ignores, launching into a convoluted gag that prompts a shouting match with his son that leads to heart attack and hospital.
Up until this point, Grammer takes centre stage in what is virtually a straight play (it’s an age before any actual songs arrive). The clash between his utterly self-assured loveable rogue and Seadon-Young’s prissy young fogey is thoroughly entertaining, in part because it seems so tinged with ambiguity, and the suggestion that Edward’s gadabout ways have a much darker side than he will ever let on.
Eventually, things go further south than Alabama. The cod-uplifting songs are entirely forgettable and hence not too egregious (though if they’d been bangers it would have have helped). But as it wears on ‘Big Fish’ becomes increasingly mawkish, and loses itself into a lengthy series of flashback sequences, in which Grammer is replaced by young actor Jamie Muscato. We lose his megawatt charisma (basically the production’s whole USP). And though I can imagine spectacle might have compensated in the Broadway production, here the small budget is made apparent, with the fantasy-heavy scenes – among others Edward’s encounters with a mermaid, a giant and a werewolf – all underwhelming. The show maintains a ramshackle charm, and Forbes Massons’s hammy, PT Barnum-esque Amos is good fun, but there’s no real substitute for Grammer’s absence when he’s off stage.
I’d guess part of the problem is director Nigel Harman: as an actor he’s a musical theatre veteran, and he keeps things ticking over efficiently enough, pace-wise. But with sub-West End production values, he and designer Tom Rogers simply can’t muster the level of visual pizzazz that might have styled ‘Big Fish’ out, whereas I would imagine there are more experienced directors who could have managed it. Nonetheless: the problem is the musical, not the budget.
Ultimately if you’re here for Kelsey Grammer, you’ll leave happy. But to state the clangingly obvious, he’s a big fish and this show is a small pond.