Little Miss Sunshine ★★★

Driving on sunshine with the Hoover family in a musical based on the much-loved film

Folk are passionate about the 2006 Oscar-winning movie that takes its audience on a road trip from New Mexico to California in the company of the dysfunctional, financially challenged Hoover family. The aim of the trip? To traverse 800 miles in a battered old VW bus in just 48 hours to make the final of the children’s beauty pageant of the title, so that they can make the dream of youngest family member Olive come true. Now Tony Award-winning Jewish team James Lapine, (Stephen Sondheim’s long-term collaborator, writer of the books of some of his best-loved musicals) and William Finn (music and lyrics) bring the family members, their hopes and fears, their aspirations and quirks, to the stage. Thanks to David Woodhead’s artful design, a revolving platform – sunshine yellow of course – topped with yellow chairs that can be reconfigured in the time it takes for a pit stop, that valiant vehicle takes to the stage too.

Little Miss Sunshine 2 c Manuel Harlan.jpg

So meet the Hoovers, led by dad Richard (Gabriel Vick), a would-be life coach, who should perhaps start with his own extended family. He's joined by his stepson Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian), a Nietzsche disciple who has vowed to remain silent until he achieves his dream of becoming a test pilot, as well as his gay brother-in-law Frank (Paul Keating), who's recovering from a failed suicide attempt after his lover left him. Mum Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford) strives doughtily to keep the family together and everyone’s spirits up. It’s left to the oldest and the youngest – Grandpa (Gary Wilmot) and Olive (Sophie Hartley-Booth on press night) – to accentuate the positive, though Grandpa does like to keep his pecker up, so to speak, with his drug-fuelled amorous adventures. Wilmot is an especially winning rascal and young Sophie an unselfconscious delight.

En route the travellers encounter officials, motel staff and a trio of ‘mean girls’ (Elissia Simondwood, Yvie Bent and Elodie Salmon on press night), Olive’s contemporaries and later rivals at the pageant, who live up to their name. They are indeed as mean to Olive as she is sweet-natured. The audience also encounters Frank’s perfidious ex-boyfriend and his new squeeze, as well as Richard and Sheryl’s more youthful, carefree and romantic selves.

Little Miss Sunshine 3 c Manuel Harlan.jpg

The travellers must also overcome a series of setbacks en route that would stop a less determined bunch in their tracks, not least the breakdown of the VW, which refuses to budge unless the whole family pulls together to push-start it.

In some ways the show feels like a box set, compressing so many personal stories quite apart from Olive’s. Since the film came out well over a decade ago, Olive’s aspirations to win a beauty pageant, especially with a rather outré routine for which she wears precocious bridal wear might be more questionable. But Hartley-Booth (and I’m sure both the other young actors who share the role) carry it off with such disarming natural panache that it’s hard not to be charmed.

The cast is uniformly excellent, entirely convincing with a terrific rapport that they share with the audience, and all the young performers, aged between eight and 10, are extraordinarily talented and self-assured.

Little Miss Sunshine 4 c Manuel Harlan.jpg

The songs have plenty of clever fun lyrics, including Grandpa’s, “What Killed off Tyrannosaurus Rex? Not having sex!” The music is brilliantly played by a terrific live band, who manage to make a big sound with just five musicians (MD Arlene McNaught). It’s always great to listen to, though it is not instantly memorable. Arcola Theatre’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen does not need a satnav to direct in his own space and the company does a great job of playing to the audience on all three sides of a thrust stage (I can vouch for that as I was sitting on the side). It all makes for an evening of sunshine, even if it does not shine quite as brightly as the film itself.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Little Miss Sunshine runs until Saturday 11 May. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 3pm (Sat only; plus Wed 24 Apr, 1 & 8 May). £10-£30. Arcola Theatre, E8 3DL. Then touring; see for info.