The Biograph Girl review – vivacious tribute to silent screen legends | Stage

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Pre-talkies Hollywood constantly seduces musical-makers. This forgotten 1980 British show, with a score by David Heneker and a book by Warner Brown, is infinitely superior to Jerry Herman’s more celebrated Mack and Mabel (1974). Where that focuses on the doomed love story of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, this piece captures the heady excitement of the burgeoning movie business from 1912 to 1927.

Heneker and Brown focus on the shifting fortunes of key players. The title itself refers to Mary Pickford, who grows from a ringleted moppet, ashamed to be working in “flickers”, into the world’s sweetheart and co-founder of United Artists. As her star rises, that of DW Griffith, the pioneer visionary of the silent screen who made The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, gradually wanes with the public losing its taste for portentous epics.

Meanwhile “the perennial poem that is Lillian Gish” – as I once heard the critic Paul Dehn describe Griffith’s favourite actor and most loyal supporter – somehow survives the radical changes overtaking the world of film.

Emily Langham and Matthew Cavendish in The Biograph Girl

Physical precision … Emily Langham (Lillian Gish) and Matthew Cavendish (Mack Sennett) in The Biograph Girl. Photograph: Lidia Crisafulli

The show is not always factually reliable: Griffith did not totally disappear with the coming of talkies, and his 1930 film Abraham Lincoln has its admirers. But the musical conveys the buoyancy of the movie business through songs that confirm Heneker (Half a Sixpence) was an experienced tunesmith: Workin’ in Flickers shows Pickford at her breeziest, The Industry makes good use of Latin-American rhythms, and Rivers of Blood, cut from the 1980 production, reminds us of the protests about the racist content of Griffith’s portrait of the American nation.

Jenny Eastop’s production, with Harry Haden-Brown on piano, makes excellent use of the Finborough’s intimacy: it’s a rare pleasure to go to a musical and be able to hear every word. The piece is also vivaciously performed. Emily Langham personifies Lillian Gish’s mix of purity and intensity, Sophie Linder-Lee conveys the cool calculation behind Pickford’s childlike persona, Jonathan Leinmuller is all magisterial solitude as Griffith, and Matthew Cavendish carries off a Mack Sennett routine with physical precision.

The show itself may not be the whole truth about Hollywood, but this revival deserves a longer life.

At Finborough, London, until 9 June. Box office: 01223 357851.

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Source: The Guardian
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