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Review: Little Miss Sunshine at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

It seems Little Miss Sunshine’s epic road trip has reached its final destination, with an end-of-tour week parked up in Liverpool.

But there’s been enough left in the tank to entertain audiences at the Playhouse before the dysfunctional Hoover family finally goes its separate ways.

Based on the off-beat, decidedly deadpan Oscar-winning 2006 comedy, this stage musical version is slight and sweet (rather like its pint-sized heroine) even if it doesn’t always capture the full charm of its source material.

Surviving, if not thriving, in New Mexico, the Hoover clan features a long-suffering mum, impatient dad, emotionally fragile brother, morose son, lewd, coke-snorting grandad (Mark Moraghan in fine form) and young Olive (played on opening night by Lily Mae Denman) who dreams of becoming a pageant princess.

When the determined youngster gets the chance to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine competition in California, the bickering family takes to the road in their aging camper van to attempt to make her dream come true – with plenty of family frustrations playing out in its close confines on the way.

Mark Moraghan (grandad), Gabriel Vick (Richard) and Lucy O'Byrne (Sheryl) in Little Miss Sunshine. Photos by Richard H Smith

It’s always going to be a challenge to evoke an epic journey within the confines of a proscenium arch, and director Mehmet Ergen and choreographer Anthony Whiteman opt for road trip by revolve – and with the help of a hard-working cast who supply plenty of physicality to proceedings.

The journey is punctuated by moments of crisis or reflection for each in turn, and by William Finn’s series of songs which are melodic if ultimately unmemorable. At times the music assists the narrative in its own journey, but at others the songs threaten to stall the show’s momentum.

The tight-knit cast offers excellent ensemble work, both dramatically and vocally, as well as exploring the hopes and demons of individual characters.

Paul Keating and Mark Moraghan have fun with flamboyant turns – as the depressed gay academic Frank and outrageous retirement home roué Edwin respectively, but Lucy O’Byrne also impresses in quieter fashion as the matriarch trying desperately to hold it all together.

The haphazard journey reaches a climax as Olive takes to the stage in a competition populated by enjoyable pageant grotesques (Everyman panto fairy Imelda Warren-Green offers a scene-stealing turn as Miss California) and where the young performer launches into a gloriously inappropriate burlesque routine.

It may not be a stage scorcher, but it’s definitely a little ray of sunshine on a rainy day.

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