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Anyone Can Whistle at Southwark Playhouse – review

The infamous musical, which closed on Broadway after nine performances, is back

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

© Danny Kaan

Judged solely on a selection of its songs, it's hard to fathom how Anyone Can Whistle wasn't a smash hit when it premiered in New York. From the bittersweet brass of "A Parade In Town" to the syncopated drama of "Everybody Says Don't" and "There Won't Be Trumpets", or the plangent longing of "So Little To Be Sure Of" and the title song, these numbers are vintage Sondheim: sophisticated mini-masterpieces of character development and revelation that have become staples of the cabaret and revue stage.

Experiencing these gems in the context of the Arthur Laurents script for which they were written however, gives a strong idea of why the Angela Lansbury-led original production folded on Broadway after a mere nine performances, and why the musical has never received an expensive, large scale revival since. Put simply, it doesn't really work, being a dazzling score tethered to an unwieldy, bewildering book. It's not always clear what's going on, or why we should especially care (this version's muddy sound design doesn't help here). The tale of a corrupt mayoress manufacturing a water-from-stone miracle to bolster the coffers of her small town while the denizens of the local mental health facility, the "Cookie Jar", run amok and mix in with allegedly sane members of society to confusing effect, this was considered experimental in 1964 but looks tame now.

As if acutely aware of this, director Georgie Rankcom has set this new production in a non-period-specific, candy-coloured fantasy land (American accents are jettisoned in favour of the actors own voices) and cast a joyously diverse ensemble to portray the ‘cookies'. This cavalier attitude to mental health further dates the show, although Rankcom has had the inspired idea of having the company mingle with the audience throughout to blur the boundaries between who is "mad" and who is "sane", while questioning the validity of conformism. It's refreshing to see such a company of triple threat genuine talents who are so fabulously themselves, and they execute Lisa Stevens's high energy dances with gusto and character.

Some of the principal performances fare less well however: Jordan Broatch's perennially smiley Hapgood, the alleged "doctor" who makes some sense of the mess the town and its inhabitants are in while harbouring a secret, is implausible, even in a setting as outlandish as this one, and struggles with some of the vocal demands of the score. Opposite them, as a cynical nurse romantically disarmed, Chrystine Symone negotiates the rangy music with great skill but reads as way too young and uncomplicated.

As the egotistical, opportunistic mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, Alex Young is worth the price of a ticket all by herself: this is a barnstorming performance that combines bravura vocals, killer comic timing and a thrilling ability to connect with the audience even when the character is behaving like an absolute nightmare. It's an object lesson in musical comedy playing, reminiscent of Julia McKenzie (still arguably this country's finest interpreter of Sondheim to date, and who played this role on an acclaimed symphonic recording finally released last year) at the height of her powers.

Charlie Ingles's pared down orchestrations manage to convey authentic Broadway brassiness, and Natalie Pound's five-piece band sounds smashing, although there are moments when they drown out some of Sondheim's ever brilliant lyrics. If Cory Shipp's costumes and traverse set look like an unexpected alliance between RENT and Play School, the aesthetic matches Rankcom's feverishly eccentric vision.

Ultimately, Sondheim and Laurents's bizarre confection isn't in whistling distance of being a great musical, but it is undeniably a notorious part of Broadway history, and one that all musical theatre completists will want to encounter. It's worth going along to hear these magnificent numbers performed live, and to witness the glorious Young take scenery-chewing and grabbing flailing material by the scruff of its neck, to new heights of dizzying delight.