Engaging Performances Can't Carry The Weak Material Of The Biograph Girl

The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre ★★☆☆☆

By Johnny Fox Last edited 16 months ago

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Engaging Performances Can't Carry The Weak Material Of The Biograph Girl The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre 2
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

‘Put it in the tissue paper’ sings the cast of The Biograph Girl in its wistful closing number, ‘they won’t want that shadow till another day’. And there you have both the motif for the end of the silent film era, and the redundancy of this slight musical based on its heyday. David Henecker and Warner Brown wrote this in 1980 when it ran for less than two months at the Adelphi. It was sweet: it might have had further life had it not been for the fact that Mack and Mabel opened a year later in Nottingham and caused local skating sweethearts Torvill and Dean to borrow its Jerry Herman score and win Gold at the World Ice Dance Championships.

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Apart from the fact Mack and Mabel was written six years earlier than The Biograph Girl, comparisons are inevitable: many of the same characters appear in both stories. Mack Sennett sings 'I Just Want to Make the World Laugh' scored by Herman, and 'I Just Wanted to Make Him Laugh' to Heneker's tune. So we've established that Mack and Mabel is the better of the two — but why?

The Biograph Girl has interesting characters — Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett — but there's no connection between their stories and they appear sequentially to sing their defining solos like dolls on a conveyor belt.  Whereas Mack and Mabel has a strong romantic involvement between the two flawed central characters and sticks with it throughout the tortuous plot, The Biograph Girl has none, despite the fact Mary Pickford was the first female studio boss and married Douglas Fairbanks during the timeline of this sketchy musical.

Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

All of which is a shame because yet again we’re bemoaning weak material while applauding excellent performances.  In the cast of nine, everyone is engaging, focused and talented with tremendous collective energy — ex-Glinda Sophie Linder-Lee makes Mary a likeable combination of winsomeness and steel and her powerhouse vocals would surely give Laura Pitt-Pulford a run for her money as Mabel, and Matthew Cavendish is a superb one-man Keystone movie in his depiction of the underwritten one-dimensional Sennett.

The Biograph Girl, Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED. Tickets £18, until 9 June 2018.

Last Updated 31 May 2018