Anyone Can Whistle – Union Theatre, London

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Arthur Laurents
Director:  Phil Willmott
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

It’s a rare thing to be told before you see a show that it’s widely considered to be terrible, but in the programme for Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ Anyone Can Whistle, which has been revived at The Union Theatre, Director Phil Willmott, Sondheim himself and even Angela Lansbury say exactly that. Willmott describes it as a ‘legendary flop’, Sondheim as “my first commercial failure… [with] dreadful notices”f, while Lansbury wanted to quit because her part was too vapid with fewer songs than her co-star, so it’s a curious piece to revisit.

tell-us-block_editedYet, the Union’s new production is performed with verve, interesting choreography and good performances which only fall slightly short of successfully papering over the show’s ludicrous plot and dramatic tonal shifts. Its focus is a small town in America that is a day away from bankruptcy, until the calculating Mayoress and her City Hall cronies, Judge Schub, Treasurer Cooley and police chief Magruder decide to fake a miracle to attract tourists. As the plan begins to work Nurse Apple brings her patients from the local asylum to take the cure in order to prove it’s a fake but, in the confusion, the ‘cookies’ become mixed-up with the real townsfolk, and a mysterious new psychiatrist arrives in town.

Willmott describes Anyone Can Whistle as ‘absolutely bonkers!’, which is a pretty fair assessment, and its plot only becomes more wayward and elaborate as it unfolds. This production successfully taps into that cartoon-like approach for much of the first act as the audience is swept along by the exuberance of the early numbers and the fabulously corrupt Mayoress Cora, played with relish by Felicity Duncan, sitting somewhere between Cruella de Vil and a classy 60s nightclub singer. As the dastardly plan comes together Duncan plays-up Cora’s love of power and loathing of the electorate, dismissing them with a sharp “peasants, urgh!”. But later we see her genuine fears over her waning popularity which add texture to Duncan’s performance and the show is much the poorer when she’s not there.

Tonally, the parallel love story developing between Rachel Delooze’s Fay Apple and Oliver Stanley’s Hapgood feels over-earnest, driven by similar sounding ballads Everybody Says Don’t and With So Little to be Sure Of. It’s clear from Delooze’s performance that her character is the emotional heart of the piece, which she brings out in her songs, while showing Fay struggling to overcome her need for “control and order”, but there’s little chemistry with Stanley and,against the lightness of the rest of the show, their relationship needs to feel less heavy.

This production’s biggest success is the Ensemble and Holly Hughes’ varied and spirited choreography. The Union Theatre is a very small space and to have 12 dancers plus the seven principals together simultaneously is no easy task. Yet Hughes creates some dynamic movements for big company numbers like Parade in Town and particularly I’ve Got You to Lean On, which involves rotating platforms and a surprise tap dance section.

Occasionally Willmott re-uses the same idea in a number of places, while the presentation of insanity as a series of exaggerated physical tics is a little old-fashioned and undermines the story’s central conceit that no one can tell the residents of the asylum and the local people apart when it would be really obvious just from these gestures. But, on the whole, the Ensemble works hard playing multiple roles and adds considerably to the quality of this production.

So, Anyone Can Whistle is a mad and not particularly brilliant musical that has been given a second chance. Can we forgive it… well not really, and for all its modern resonance about the corruption of high office and the selfishness of those in power, it’s not quite the cutting satire it wants to be. Phil Willmott’s company has made the best of a bad job, but it won’t restore this musical’s reputation. Besides, how could you ever disagree with Angela Lansbury?

Runs until 11 March 2017 | Image: Scott Rylander

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