Saturday 27 March 2010

Anyone Can Whistle, or in which it is proved that a Sondheim flop is more interesting than most people's hits

Anyone can Whistle is probably the most rarely performed of all Stephen Sondheim's shows. Even Merrily We Roll Along has enjoyed more rehabilitations. Yet, although on the strength of the new production at the Jermyn Street Theatre it is evidently a show with problems, it is also proof that a Sondheim flop is more interesting, and more worthy of revival, than many hits.

The show takes place in a fictional American town under the tender control of Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Issy van Randwyck) and a nefarious trio of male town council colleagues. In order to save the administration from bankruptcy and ensure her re-election they rig up a fake miracle of water bursting from a rock. Unfortunately the town also houses The Cookie Jar, home to 49 of the socially pressured, or lunatics, who turn up wanting to sample the miracle waters. This of course will disprove the miracle. After that it all gets a bit complicated and zany, somewhat after the manner of the Marx Brothers, with disguises, plots and an increasing confusion between the mad and the sane.

Unquestionably for me, the strongest element in the show is Arthur Laurents' superbly mad book. I don't know what he was smoking when he wrote it, but it is a work of blinding genius ranging from screwball comedy style romance to logical non sequiturs reminiscent of The Goon Show or the Beyond the Fringe crew rambling on about whether or not they have apples in a basket. Given the frequency with which the book element is relegated to second tier status, it is hugely refreshing to be presented with such an intelligent book which demands close listening but equally repays it by being both profoundly touching and uproariously funny.

The score is a bit weaker and to my mind, and most unusually for a Sondheim score, there are numbers which are a bit forgettable. Yet what the show also has in its best numbers is Sondheim's trademark bittersweetness tempered by some of the humour, that can also be found in Forum, into something more lasting and powerful. These characters can be over the top but they are also marvellously human, and they nearly all get at least one good number. Newcomers to the score will be most familiar with There Won't Be Trumpets and Anyone can Whistle, both magnificently performed by Rosalie Craig, but the emotional centre of the show comes in the penultimate duet, With So Little to Be Sure Of - a heart-rending duet which left me on the edge of my seat wondering what the denouement was going to be. Also worthy of mention is the beautifully judged vignette for the plotting town council, I've Got You to Lean On. The most fun, though, is to be had from the completely inappropriately named Simple, wherein our hero, J Bowden Hapgood successfully flummoxes the town council by pretending to divide the populous into the sane and the lunatic – it is a piece of genius and unlike anything else I can think of in Sondheim's oeuvre. As an aside, it is also worth noting some odd echoes of other shows: Parade in Town is distinctly reminiscent of Before the Parade Passes By (though this could be complete chance as they opened in the same year) and it suddenly struck me while writing this review that there is a similar echo of 'till There Was You from The Music Man in With So Little to Be Sure Of.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I have become a little tired of the current penchant for musical revivals with actors doubling as musicians, but in this small space, and with such a fine ensemble, it works brilliantly and doesn't feel like a money/space saving device. I previously saw Rosalie Craig in the hilarious Translucent Frogs of Quuup where she endeared herself to me forever by delivering the greatest double entendre in the history of musical theatre absolutely deadpan. Here she is equally fine, moving convincingly from cold-blooded logician to racy French impersonator (the scene of cod French, cooly translated by the orchestra is another piece of Laurents' genius), to fragile woman desperately wanting to let go. As the villainous Mayoress, Issy van Randwyck is ideal. The part needs a belter, which she is, but it is also crucial that it should not descend into caricature and van Randwyck walks that line with ease. Her delivery of lines is also consistently very funny, whether wailing desperately for help from her right-hand man Schub, or going gooey eyed over Hapgood, or insisting that her diabolical colleagues tell her nothing of their schemes. David Ricardo-Pierce as Hapgood is equally versatile, bringing a zaniness to his delivery of Simple, but is equally wonderfully moving as he tries to jolt Rosalie Craig out of her logical prison. Finally, mention should also be given to the town council trio, and particularly Alistair Robins as Comptroller Schub. Chichester Festival Theatre and the Menier, those other homes of great musical revivals, ought to have their scouts in attendance and be giving serious thought to how to utilise these kinds of talents.

So, is this a show that ought to be regularly revived? Probably not in a large theatre (although it might be rather fun to see it with the 49 lunatics frequently referred to in the book, and the revolving stage of the Olivier could do justice to the various settings). But the book is so rich, there are so many fine songs, and the show as a whole offers such rich opportunities for talented performers that it deserves frequent revivals in intimate spaces. In the meantime, do not miss this opportunity, but get yourselves down to the Jermyn Street Theatre and see this show.

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