Review: Little Miss Sunshine, Arcola Theatre

As a big fan of the film Little Miss Sunshine, I was curious to see how James Lapine and William Finn would adapt the story not only into a play but also into a musical. How do you create a musical when one of the principal characters, Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian), famously doesn’t speak? And how do you create a stage show out of a film that spends most of its time in a VW camper van? My concerns turn out to be tiny insignificant details as Mehmet Ergen directs a brilliant and hilarious European debut of Little Miss Sunshine: A Road Musical at the Arcola Theatre.

While your view might be limited depending on which of the three sides of the stage you are on, Little Miss Sunshine certainly exploits the space at the Arcola Theatre. The well-known yellow VW van graces the stage in various forms, each constructed with the smoothest of transitions. David Woodhead’s entire set design is very… yellow, as is to be expected, but is also covered in an intricate road map, representative of the omnipresent satnav voice, also known as “Map Bitch”. The arrival of the satnav isn’t the only technological update that moves the 2006 film to the 2019 musical, as the silent Dwayne uses his phone to communicate rather than a notepad. Other than that, the story itself seems even more relevant and poignant in 2019 as the cash-strapped Hoover family defy all obstacles – and there are a lot – to deliver enigmatic daughter Olive (Sophie Hartley-Booth, Lily Mae Denman, Evie Gibson) to the Californian Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, all the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Hartley-Booth, one of the three young actresses playing Olive, gives an enchanting performance, blissfully unaware of her chaotic family and yet respectfully sensitive to all of them. Gabriel Vick does an amazing job at playing the failing patriarch Richard, a character who is very easy to hate. But scenes unique to the musical give both Richard and his wife Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford) new depth, helping the audience to empathise with these complicated characters. The awkward, suicidal and queer academic uncle Frank (Paul Keating) is given space to grow too, as his character seems to become camper with every second of the show.

Despite some questionable accents and a soundtrack I’m not sure I’d want to listen to outside of the show, Little Miss Sunshine works well as an adaptation and as a stand-alone production. Pitt-Pulford has a beautiful voice that is perfect for some of the show’s more serious moments. Little Miss Sunshine is not perfect, but for a story that highlights the necessity and inevitability of failure and the subtle art of profanity, perfection, I suspect, was never the goal.

Little Miss Sunshine is playing Arcola Theatre until 11 May. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.