For the first time since it premiered in the West End in 1980, David Heneker and Warner Brown’s ‘The Biograph Girl’ has been given a revival – although this saga of epic movies, big budgets and grand visions makes it an odd fit for the Finborough.
The musical takes us on a 16-year journey through cinema’s fledgling years, from the days when movies were still disreputable things called ‘flickers’ that only out-of-work stage actors did, through the studios’ migration from New York to California and the boom of a big-bucks industry, and all the way to the troublesome advent of sound in the late 1920s. It’s all told through a series of jazzy, ragtime-influenced numbers and real-life characters including groundbreaking filmmaker DW Griffith (Jonathan Leinmuller), his muse Lillian Gish (Emily Langham) and proto-starlet Mary Pickford (Sophie Linder-Lee).
Jenny Eastop’s production is a stripped-down affair, with the cast reduced to nine and the music courtesy of a single piano. It’s an inventive, if necessary move, and succeeds with intimate solos (‘One Of The Pioneers’) and duets (‘I Just Wanted To Make Him Laugh’) – but with the dance-led ensemble songs, this does burst at the seams of this above-the-pub theatre a bit.
Then there’s the issue of Griffith, whose ‘Birth of A Nation’ committed images of Klansmen to celluloid and is remembered now as a bigoted yet brilliant masterpiece. The focus here is less on Griffith’s racism and more how his belief in cinema as a moralistic artform floundered as the talkies arrived and the era of glitz and celebrity (which he despised) took hold. Of course, he was probably both things – but the public backlash to his divisive opus is skimmed over in a cursory-feeling song (‘Rivers of Blood’) that present-day audiences will find lacking. (Brown has since expressed regret at not tackling the problem more in his book.)
The songs are fun, if forgettable, and held together by strong vocals (especially from Linder-Lee), solid direction and tight choreography. Langham and Leinmuller’s chemistry forms the emotional core of a warm-hearted, slightly scattershot revival of Hollywood’s genesis story.