Ashley Campbell, Michael Cantwell, Katie Foster-Barnes, Nick Holder, Alana Maria, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Lee William-Davis, Julia Worsley
Michael John LaChiusa’s Little Fish, a musical reworking of two short stories by Deborah Eisenberg that merges the characters from two of her pieces, Days and Flotsam.
The result is an intricately written and intriguingly fragmented if ultimately rather insubstantial piece, about finding your feet in a difficult city.
But while this new London staging, its European premiere, is nearly always engaging and is well-performed, it seems to expend an awful lot of energy (and perspiration – literally) in order to go a very short distance.
The show began life off-Broadway in 2003, at the Second Stage Theatre, and is now been squeezed into the dinky Finborough Theatre in Earls Court. The plot (perhaps too strong a word) concerns Charlotte, a writer who uses her decision to quit smoking as a catalyst to examine her life. Charlotte is always running away from things; shes been running ever since her abrasive former lover, Robert, told her that she was not a natural born writer; that she was proficient but boring. Following their break up, Charlotte moved ran to New York and ended up sharing a flat with the coke-snorting and volatile Cinder.
LaChiusa links together a series of brief scene in New York galleries and night clubs, in Cinders dress shop, hopping backwards and forwards in time as he does so in order to show how Charlotte has ended up where she is and to show her growing closeness with her friends Marco and Kathy. In fact what gives the musical its heart and gives Charlottes crisis a bit of weight, is LaChiusas interest in friendship and its importance in an often hostile urban world: the necessity of connection. Whenever events seem in danger of getting too sugary, he tempers things by allowing violence and illness to intrude into Charlottes world, scenes which, for the most part, are well handled.
After relinquishing cigarettes, Charlotte tries to get fit first by swimming and then by running and she starts spending large amounts of time at the Y and at the track. Its a physical manifestation of her unsettledness and insecurity, a feeling unhelped by the constant stream of advice shes given by other people about all the things shes doing wrong wrong technique, wrong footwear: theres always something.
LaChiusa favours complex rhymes – involving words like ‘aquatic’ and ‘anesthesiology’ – and his writing is always interesting even if the shows main metaphor, little fish in a big pond, feels rather over-extended and forced. The cast attack the material with gusto and Lee William-Davis is particularly good as Marco, investing his brief, funny song about finding himself (complete with comedy “oms”) with real humour and injecting a flash of anger and pain into his account of being assaulted by his ex-boyfriend. Julia Worsley, on stage throughout as Charlotte, manages the not inconsiderable feat of keeping her self-involved character on the right side of irritating and Alana Maria is suitably fierce as scary flatmate Cinder.
Though its by nature an intimate musical, Adam Lensons production still feels rather cramped at the Finborough, even with some endearing choreography by Nick Cunningham (the glittery swimming floats are a lovely touch). The band perch atop of Bec Chippendale’s clever and versatile blue-brick set, the colour presumably meant to bring to mind a swimming pool, and their playing is excellent throughout. But the Finborough is a small space filled with very bright lights and it became an increasing struggle to ignore the resultant heat. As the characters strode around in their coats, in the midst of a harsh New York winter, the audience turned their programmes into makeshift fans and reached for their water bottles. Unfortunately its this discomfort that ends up being the dominant memory of the production.