Review: Little Miss Sunshine at Arcola Theatre

*disclaimer: I was given free tickets to Little Miss Sunshine at Arcola Theatre on behalf of UK Theatre Network, in exchange for this review. This review was first published on UK Theatre Network’s site. All opinions are my own.

Little Miss Sunshine

“enjoyable but disappointing”

Based on the 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine is about young Olive whose dream it is to enter and win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. When first place in the regional competition falls through, Olive and her dysfunctional family have a race against time to get her there. 

With direction from Mehmet Ergen, book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William FinnLittle Miss Sunshine is an enjoyable show. With most of the show being set in the Hoover’s family van, it is definitely a story that is all about the journey rather than the destination.This is definitely the first show I have seen in a while where every character and actor contributed something totally different to this dysfunctional family and interesting relationships. 

Laura Pitt-Pulford, Gabriel Vick, Gary Wilmot, Paul Keating, Lily Mae Denman and Sev Keoshgerian in Little Miss Sunshine
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Laura Pitt-Pulford as tired mum Sheryl was a delight to watch. Her vocals were fantastic and her character was so-well defined, with each relationship with every one of her family members being realistic, well-portrayed and unique; she did not look at her son the way she did to her father-in-law and her relationship with Sophie Hartley-Booth as Olive was heartfelt.

Gabriel Vick as practical “10 steps to success” dad Richard was less developed as a character but still made for a nice character. His relationship with his wife had a lot of depth to it, especially when we see the flashback of two high-schoolers in love to the harsh reality of 18 years later. His character goes through a lot during the show and never falters.

A huge talent on stage was without a doubt Gary Wilmot as Grandpa. A cocaine-sniffing, porn-watching character who was kicked out of his (and every other) nursing home in the area, Grandpa is definitely a humorous character to the adults in the audience. His number “The Happiest Guy in the Van” really had me laughing and his relationship with young Olive is touching and realistic.

Gary Wilmot, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Gabriel Vick and Paul Keating in Little Miss Sunshine
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Sev Keoshgerian as sworn-silenced typical moody teenage boy Dwayne adds a lot to this production but makes more impact when he doesn’t speak than when he does. Dwayne has not spoken a word in 85 days and will continue to communicate only via his Blackberry until he can be a fighter pilot. A lot rides on the first time Keoshgerian opens his mouth, and I was a little disappointed with the lack of impact it created. However, his relationship with Olive again is what makes his character so strong.

Uncle Frank is brought to life by Paul Keating. His character raises eyebrows as soon as he walks on the stage with bandages on each wrist. In these two bandages, a lot is said for Uncle Frank, but unfortunately, that’s where his character development stops. His attempted heartfelt conversations with nephew Dwayne regrettably fall flat and I struggled to warm to him as a character in any way, let alone be particularly interested in his backstory.

Paul Keating in Little Miss Sunshine
Credit: Manuel Harlan

Last but not least is the sparkle of joy and twinkle in everyone’s eye Olive, played on this evening by Sophie Hartley-Booth. She was a brilliant casting choice for this inquisitive little girl who doesn’t let things go unnoticed – much to her parent’s dismay. She brings the whole family together, she brings the heartfelt emotion, and the feel-goodness of the show. I saw so much of my childhood self in little Olive and aspire to be more like her in my life.

Olive learns a lot on her road trip with her family, from her uncle’s homosexuality and self-harming, to aspects of body image for women from her practical father who is “only trying to help” and she battles her own very real bullies – the Mean Girls, played in this performance by Ellicia SimondwoodYvie Brent and Elodie Salmon

Lily Mae Denmon, Yvie Brent, Elodie Salmon and Ellicia Simondwood in Little Miss Sunshine
Credit: Manuel Harlan

There are some very real and very heartfelt moments in the show, starting with how all the family pulls together for a 9-hour long road trip in one van together to ensure Olive’s dreams of winning Little Miss Sunshine aren’t crushed. The conversations that follow, the past that is uncovered and the relationships that are explored are only natural of an entire family being shoved together under such circumstances – you haven’t had a proper family Christmas if you’re not sick of one family member by the end of it, and this road trip for the Hoover’s is no different.

I felt that too many social comments were trying to be made that none was given the real depth or time to be properly examined, leaving each one to fall a little flat. The list included, but was not limited to sexual liberation, bullying, homosexuality, mental health and self-harm, body image, and so much more. However, I haven’t seen the film myself, and if that is what the film is like then this isn’t a critique on the musical.

What is a critique, however, is the songs and music; not a single song was memorable or particularly engaging. By the second half of each song I’d forgotten the first half, and I didn’t find myself rushing to find the soundtrack on Spotify as soon as I left. All of the songs were performed well, but if someone played me the soundtrack tomorrow, I’d probably swear that I’d never heard it before. This made the show enjoyable but disappointing in this respect, as I’d expected a show with such a bright title “Little Miss Sunshine” to have a bop-along fun soundtrack, at least for some of the songs. And from what I can remember – it didn’t.

Lily Mae Denman, Sev Koeshgerian, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Back Paul Keating, Gary Wilmot, Gabriel Vick in Little Miss Sunshine
Credit: Manuel Harlan

There is much to be said for Little Miss Sunshine as a show and a story, and what I will take away from it is a desire to be more like Olive; the little girl who brings brightly coloured tutus and wears fruit bowls on her head as a tiara, into repetitive and stressful family life.

The show reminds adults to be themselves, in whatever way that may be – a message that children don’t often need as much reminding. It tells us not to stifle our creativity and not let opinions of others stop us from wearing goggles to a beauty pageant. 

Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola Theatre until 11 May is enjoyable and fun, but not the hottest ticket around.


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