This exuberant, inclusive musical tells the true story of teenage rugby star Henry Fraser, who was paralysed from the shoulders down in a holiday swimming accident in 2009 but went on to become a successful painter. It’s a hymn to the human spirit, the medical profession and the complicated dynamics of a loving, middle-class family. Though its raucous good humour sometimes dissolves into sentiment, it’s one of the most uplifting, heart-swelling shows I’ve seen in ages. No, I’m not crying: you’re crying.
The poppy score and cheerfully sweary script are built around a dialogue between post-accident Henry (Ed Larkin, who uses a wheelchair), and the able-bodied younger self (Jonny Amies) he needs to forgive and then let go. A version of this dynamic – involving guilt, regret and resentment – also plays out between Henry’s parents (Linzi Hateley) and Alasdair Harvey) and his three blokey, rugger-bugger brothers.
It’s a neat expression of the psychological as well as the physical cost of sudden disability. Henry’s overworked but tireless doctor (Malinda Parris) suggests he thinks of it as ending up in a disappointing holiday destination, like Belgium. It’s down to ribald, no-nonsense physiotherapist Agnes (played with knockout charisma by wheelchair-user Amy Trigg) to get his forward momentum going again. Oh, and his childhood sweetheart Katie (Gracie McGonigal) who, on seeing the pictures Henry has created with a stylus gripped in his teeth, remarks: “You’re better with your mouth than you ever were with your hands.”
The story of the show’s creation is almost as extraordinary as Henry’s rehabilitation (he left hospital 11 months early) and his reinvention as an artist. Pop-song composer Nick Butcher and his co-lyricist Tom Ling had connections to the Fraser family and the rugby world and asked emerging playwright Joe White to help them adapt Henry’s 2017 autobiography. None of them had written a musical before, much less one that required a wheelchair-friendly stage: but as they worked on it under lockdown, producer Nica Burns was building the perfect theatre.
The creators’ experience in crafting three-minute hits and their relative ignorance of musical theatre convention prove liberating. Several numbers, particularly those involving the bros, sound like superior boyband ballads: I mean that as a compliment. There are party tunes as Henry goes out drinking both pre- and post-accident. OK, it’s a little obvious to give Parris, the only black woman in a lead role, a gospel-inflected tune: but the lyrics communicate both the stress and the passion of a doctor’s life.
Hateley, a musical stalwart, wows with the clever One to Seventeen, about mothering boys. Harvey, as her weekend-sailor husband, leads the soaring Miles and Miles, which works on several levels; the boat as a metaphor for the family; the sea representing both potential and danger. The voices are strong, the swelling climax of the big numbers devastating.
There’s little set, so director Luke Sheppard uses colour washes by lighting designer Howard Hudson to evoke place and mood. Choreographer Mark Smith seamlessly integrates the able and disabled cast in his joyful choreography and uses the full height of the theatre: you’ll believe a man in a wheelchair can fly. At the end of opening night the audience were on their feet long before Henry himself came on stage. Now if you’ll excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye…
@sohoplace, to November 25 Nov; book tickets here