A smaller '12 chair' version of the behemoth musical is transforming the Hayes
In the heart of Alabama, a travelling salesman befriends a giant, stares down a witch, and works for a werewolf. Or so he says.
Big Fish is the tale of Edward Bloom's tall tales, and his son Will's attempt to uncover the truth behind them. Knowing the reality of his father has never been more important to Will; he's about to become a father himself. And Edward is dying.
Was Edward an unremarkable man, desperate to impress his intelligent young son with flights of fancy? Or was he of great importance to the world, and Will just can't see the magic in his dad? This musical makes the most of a normal life – just as we make heroes and gods out of our own loved ones, no matter how pedestrian their lives may seem to others.
Directed here by Tyran Parke, this is only the latest take on the Bloom family. First a novel by Daniel Wallace, it was adapted by Tim Burton into an eye-popping stylised film in 2003. In 2013 this musical Fish flopped on Broadway, lasting only 98 performances. Book writer John August (who scripted the film) and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family Musical) took their bombastic show and scaled it down for a new life in smaller venues. This "12 chairs" version doesn't have a sea of daffodils or a man flying out of a cannon, but it does have oodles of heart. And with special technical effects off the table, the musical has a new scrappiness that insists the director and designer use their imaginations to spin Edward’s yarns into theatre.
Parke and production designers Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt have embraced the show’s near-aggressive levels of whimsy: glasses of lemonade are poured and magically change colours; a mermaid tail flicks up in the background; tufts of hair and fake teeth make a werewolf. It's half slick, half with a sense of make-do, and maybe that make-do attitude – buckets of silvery, shimmery fish cutouts and a gentle rain of daffodil petals – should have won out over the pressure to be slick, with overbuilt dreamy backdrops and a too-literal stage bed. There’s something delightful about versatile props and minimalist stages – when you must be adaptable and resourceful, you can engage more minds in the act of imagination and the joyous suspension of disbelief. Big Fish on a bare stage with a handful of props and those 12 chairs of the show’s revised vision might have been more satisfying, keeping true Edward Bloom’s gift of conjuring grandeur out of thin air.
Philip Lowe gives Edward Bloom the easy speech rhythms and unforced charm of a natural salesman. With his ready smile and the twinkle in his eye, it's easy to understand why plenty of people – and more than a few women – adore him. His voice is worn by the end of the show (Lowe has been ill with a throat infection; Parke has been singing Lowe’s part offstage through previews) but Lowe uses this to his advantage, his trademark full sound faltering as the man begins to falter, seeming more like a choice than an inconvenience). As his son, Adam Rennie brings crucial warmth to the fore in both voice and presence; this cautious adult never feels too far away from the boy who both idolised and doubted his father.
The parts for women – Edward's wife Sandra (Katrina Retallick), Will's wife Josephine (Alessandra Merlo), Edward's high school sweetheart Jenny Hill (Kirby Burgess), plus a witch and a mermaid – are underdeveloped, there to support Edward and Will emotionally and shape their journeys rather than have feelings or journeys of their own. But the actors in these parts bring compassion, a sense of adventure, and genuine pathos to the stage, well beyond that which the script calls for. Aaron Tsindos gives a smartly wrought performance as Don Price, Edward’s not-so-smart rival, and Brendon Godwin, who shares the part of Young Will with Sam Wood, added sweetness to the story.
The show is designed to tug at heartstrings; Lippa's songs begin with braggadocio and transform into wistfulness. The musical numbers aren't complex but they are emotive, embracing patter, ballad, and the melodic brightness of the 1930s to paint a picture of a larger-than-life existence. Luke Byrne directs the music, keeping the numbers clean and lively, boosted with the sparkle of Cameron Mitchell’s choreography.
And when Edward and Will must face the biggest chapter of all – Edward’s final story – the audience is suddenly full of sniffling, weeping, and discreet eye-wiping. This one will remind you of the great storytellers, adventurers, and heroes in your own life, and remind you of their charms. Some will find that difficult to resist.