by Laura Kressly
It initially seems like a harmless premise – after a tween boy in early 90s New Jersey is embarrassed in front of the girl he has a crush on, he makes a wish that he was bigger on a fortune telling game at the carnival passing through town. On waking up the next morning, he discovers he’s still 12 years old, but in the body of a grown man. Though his mum chases him out of the house, his best friend Billy offers to help him track down the machine and reverse the spell.
What could be a zany adventure Is instead a horror of sexual predation, abuse, sexism and offensive gags from a cast that’s almost entirely white. Josh’s quest to find the Zoltar machine that made him big leads him to New York City, where he gets a job as a toy tester at a floundering company. He meets Susan, VP of Marketing and the sole woman in management, who is – of course – known for sleeping her way up the corporate ladder (because how else would a woman have such a high-up job?). She immediately falls for what she interprets as Josh’s authenticity, but he doesn’t understand her persistent come-ons. Their miscommunications drive much of the rest of the story.
Whilst its clear the writers are aiming for laughs, in 2019 Susan’s persistence comes off as ill-judged at best, or creepy and gross at worst. With the addition of a transphobic joke and Susan declaring her love for Josh after she slaps him, it prompts questions on why the producers thought this was an appropriate show to revive. Or why it was appropriate to write in the first place.
There are some redeeming features in this production, however. Jay McGuiness does a commendable job as Josh in an adult’s body, and it goes some way in counteracting the incredulity of the entire production. His physicality and vocal rhythms are spot-on for a 13-year-old, and he delivers his lines with conviction and truth rather than ham. Kimberly Walsh is Susan; whilst she’s a great singer, her line delivery is often flat and mechanical. The adult ensemble and their choreography are uninspiring, with the children’s ensemble exceeding them in sharpness of execution and charm every time.
A semicircle of panels on the revolve are the backdrop for excellent video and projection work that add detail to the grey landscape of Josh’s office, and the tree-lined suburban streets of his hometown. There are also some great NY skyline images that complement the metallic trim of the pros arch, and the piano scene in FAO Schwartz – made famous by the Tom Hanks film – is cleverly executed with projections and lights, and an utter delight.
But the nasty aftertaste left by this show negates the positives. Though the design is superb, the kids are both adorable and excellent performers, and McGuiness’s work is solid, the appalling storyline and its tone-deafness can get in the bin.
Big runs through 2 November in London. Tickets provided by London Box Office.
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