The current run of The Biograph Girl at the Finborough Theatre is the first UK professional revival in almost 40 years of Warner Brown’s debut West End musical. It tells the story of the so-called ‘Biograph Girl’ – or, the actresses who worked for the Biograph Company in the early days of the film industry. The story is based on the life of Mary Pickford and other people in the industry around the time that silent films were giving way to motion pictures.
The theme of the development from silent films to talking movies is something that has been seen before. For example, Singing in the Rain is a well-renowned musical with similar themes, although one with more elaborate and accomplished subplots. In The Biograph Girl, although there are plenty of subplots, they are not followed through or seamlessly intertwined with the main storyline. This is particularly noticeable in how the play addresses race, for example – there is one number ‘Rivers of Blood’ (which was cut from the original production but has been reinstated for this run) but the theme is underdeveloped.
The music, by David Heneker, is lovely. That is the best way to describe it; there are a few good songs but most of the musical numbers are not massively catchy, and there are just too many – quite a few of the songs feel unimportant to the storyline, or are a tad boring. There is a pianist playing (an electric keyboard disguised as an antique), which is a dramatic downsizing from the orchestra of 10 in the original production. It makes the whole show seem much more intimate, especially with the great balance of eye contact the performers manage to achieve. The space is very small, and the director, Jenny Eastop, knows how to turn that into an advantage.
The acting is interesting. Two especially stand out as incredible performers; Jonathan Leinmuller, portraying D. W. Griffith and Sophie Linder-Lee, playing Mary Pickford. They really manage to capture the essence of the time and embrace the stereotypes without overdoing it. The other actors are good, but the energy, levels and styles of their performance do not seem to match Leinmuller and Linder-Lee.
The Biograph Girl is a nice show. It is very easy to fall in love with the burst of energy that Linder-Lee brings, even though she isn’t really the main character, and the music and choreography are charming. Is it mind-blowing theatre? No. But if you like the era and are bored of the same old Gatsby-esque stories, or maybe if you just want to learn more about the rise of talkies, then The Biograph Girl is worth a watch. Or maybe just follow Linder-Lee wherever she goes?