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Review: Anyone Can Whistle (Union Theatre)

Phil Willmott directs this revival of Sondheim's cartoonesque musical about a corrupt town

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

© Scott Rylander

Anyone Can Whistle is Stephen Sondheim's most famous flop. It ran for just 16 performances before its ignominious closure in 1964, something its author has always regretted. "Smart-ass though it might have been" he wrote in his musical autobiography Finishing the Hat, "Whistle was unconventional and inventive and above all playful... It was a laudable attempt to present something off-centre in mainstream musical theatre."

Much as I adore him, in this he was wrong. Whistle is an unsalvageable show, full of a kind of smug cleverness, and self-satisfaction. Its problem is not that it is a cartoon – as Sondheim acknowledges – but that the drawing of that cartoon is so gaudy and broad-brush that it is virtually impossible to appreciate the satirical heart concealed in the rough outline.

So although it was smart of director Phil Willmott to notice that its savage attack on the greed, venality and fear of the other, that characterise parts of small town America, has some relevance in an era when Donald Trump has been elected President, his energetic and well-meant production cannot disguise just how pointless the entire affair is.

The plot, such as it is, swivels around the idea that the venal governors of a bankrupt town invent a miracle to bring in pilgrims and cash. But their plans are undone when the residents of a local asylum, who they want to keep out, mingle with the queuing crowds, who they want to let in. Cue much agonising about who is mad and who is sane, and whether a desire not to conform is the act of a man of sound mind or a lunatic.

There's also a romantic sub-plot involving principled nurse Apple and the unlikely town saviour Hapgood. And suddenly, when she is pretending to be a French miracle worker, a kind of miracle happens and the most magical love song – "Anyone Can Whistle" – emerges from a fairly ordinary (at least by Sondheim's elevated standards) score. This, and the closing "With So Little to be Sure Of", have ensured the show's occasional revivals.

Here Rachel Delooze fills the song with tender longing. It's a highpoint of a production that also features a full-blooded performance by Felicity Duncan (ravishing in red, though with a curiously irritating handbag always attached) as the town's corrupt Mayoress. The band of piano, guitar and drums, provides excellent accompaniment throughout. But the real stars are the hard-working, strong-voiced chorus, and Holly Hughes' exceptional, sharp choreography that gracefully fills the Union's tiny space.

Willmott's direction is less sure-footed; his handling of the 'cookies' – the asylum inmates – is as old-fashioned as that truly difficult name. But it is the show not the production that fails to inspire.

Anyone Can Whistle runs at the Union Theatre until 11 March.