Spread the word: Sydney is currently home to a rare gem of a show, but only until the 14th of May. The Big Fish company have a lot to be proud of, and with recurrent standing ovations (I’m writing at the halfway mark into their season), it’s a show that simply can’t be missed by theatre-lovers.
For as long as Will can remember, his father Edward Bloom has been telling fantastical, larger-than-life tales about his adventures as a travelling salesman. When the family discovers that Edward is dying, Will obsessively seeks out the truth behind his father’s seemingly fictional life. Soon to have a son of his own, Will is determined to learn his father’s real story: why does he talk of giants and mermaids, but not of the town in which he grew up?
The story is at the core of the show, which isn’t always the case for musicals. Rarer still, the Big Fish book presents a blend of both escapism and realism. We’re transported to new and magical places, and yet we’re still grounded by all-too-human experiences, examining themes of family and mortality. As outlandish as this show is, the messages that it brings to the fore – of acceptance, love and legacy – are universal and so relatable to us all.
Big Fish has formerly been performed on the West End and Broadway in huge theatres with a cast of over forty. At The Hayes, the show is given a more intimate setting, with a stage probably a tenth of the usual size, and an audience no larger than one hundred and ten. There are twelve in this cast, and director Tyran Parke has tackled the challenge with alacrity. Most notably, Parke turns Big Fish into an ensemble piece, where all performers support one another as onlookers or as witnesses to the action, and adopt multiple identities. It’s a delight to see each of the performers as often as we do, and it forces the production to revolve around the players, rather than the design elements. It’s a real credit to the Hayes that this show was programmed; it is an ambitious undertaking.
Phillip Lowe as Edward Bloom is raw and genuine, forging a character who we can’t help but love. His son Will is played by Adam Rennie, whose stunning vocals are given full-flight in the show-stopper “Stranger”. However, his role, edgy and impossibly determined, is harder to love than Lowe’s. Katrina Retallick as Sandra Bloom is a highlight. Katrina brings the most multi-faceted character to this show – be it youthful student, tired wife, or doting mother.
The remainder of the cast are brilliant. There are excellent performances by familiar faces, such as Kirby Burgess, and a select few newcomers to the scene. Brittanie Shipway as the witch brings another dazzling performance, reminiscent of Fruma Sarah from Fiddler.
Due to the small-scale nature of this production, the design rates are a little underwhelming on a technicality. Of course, the fact that the story moves so rapidly from small-town Alabama to a circus and then to a giant’s lair in the hills and back again means that a set for each scene would have been impossible. The production achieves changes of scene through performance, lighting changes and sound cues, the cumulative effect of which is to mask the somewhat limiting space. Despite the physical restrictions, the production brings a lot to the table, and what it brings is innovative and original. There’s also trapeze at one point! Credit must be given to designers Gardiner and Hunt. There are some strokes of genius that I only wish were utilised more, like shadow puppetry from the opening sequence. Still, this production makes a point of telling its story through deft subtlety.
The book is undeniably special for its originality, its simple message and its epic-ness. I wonder if there’s so much to get through, that it skims over the characters and their stories a little too quickly? I am left feeling as though I could have gotten to know each character a little more, but I suppose that’s the likely impact of Bloom’s broken stories, as well. Act Two’s attempt to resolve all of the information thrown at us in Act One is speedy to the point of browsing, and due to some rather soppy lyrics, the sentiment is a little effusive. And yet, nothing feels overblown (as it easily could have been) with thanks to this production’s radiant cast who carry an enormous responsibility in delivering all aspects of the show. The intimacy in the crafty performances will move you, and you’ll feel as though the show should have always looked like this.
Lippa’s score suits the story. It is whimsical and pleasant when combined with the events taking place. Sometimes it runs the risk of all sounding a little too similar to itself, but there are exceptions: Stranger, Time Stops and I Don’t Need A Roof. Lippa also matches the story for comic effect by changing his style completely: Little Lamb from Alabama has its intended impact largely with thanks to Cameron Mitchell’s choreography.
This production of Big Fish is glowing in love. The commitment and the pride of all involved is so clear that you’re sure to be on the journey with them for those two and a half hours. Twelve exceptional players have come together to tell a story, and it’s no small feat for any of them. Under Parke’s expert watch, the company have created a piece of theatre which is dripping in energy and swimming in quality.
Ticket details here!