In just under a month’s time there’s a much anticipated concert performance taking place in celebration of the work of Stephen Sondheim who died last year. It has attracted a rarefied cast of performers, and such was the demand for tickets that the event is also being directly live streamed into a second auditorium. I suspect that it won’t be the only Sondheim content that will be on display this year. Indeed, ahead of this mega event comes a production of one of his earliest works Anyone Can Whistle which has just opened at Southwark Playhouse. Notoriously a flop back in 1964, many have tried but few have succeeded in reviving its fortunes. The show has only really remained in the memory through the anthologising of some of the key songs in concert performances – the big 90th birthday celebration Take Me To the World streamed during the pandemic featured no less than three numbers from the show. Could Southwark succeed and rehabilitate it as a neglected masterpiece.
Sadly not, but that’s really nothing to do with Sondheim who supplies some memorable numbers dotted throughout the show and pioneers aspects of the extended choral work that he was to use more successfully in later pieces. The chief culprit is the scattergun book devised by Arthur Laurents which barely hangs together and features a nonsensical and not particularly interesting storyline, inadequate 2D characterisation and dull repetitive dialogue replete with non sequiturs. An American small town’s mayor and her three henchmen contrive to revive a flagging local economy by “creating” a miracle. This is opposed (for reasons not altogether clear) by the stern head nurse of the local asylum and an itinerant hippyish “doctor” who fall into a relationship. The ensuing power struggle raises issues surrounding mental health, identity, individuality, political chicanery, fake news and a number of other topics which are probably more relevant today than back in the Sixties.
The production takes that decade as its calling card with its hyper direction from Georgie Rankcom on a traverse stage which keeps things moving along at a frantic pace and ensures there is always something to distract from the essential nonsense which is the plot. The design (Cory Shipp) comes in day glo eye popping colours redolent of a Hanna Barbera cartoon – Scooby Doo kept coming to mind. Another key reference point for me was Rowan And Martin’s Laugh In especially in the manic choreography of Lisa Stevens and the over the top delivery of some of the performances. It’s all a bit pantomimic but what else can you do with a book that veers from heavy handed political satire to saccharine messages about love, tolerance and understanding? And even while it’s doing the latter it still insists on calling the asylum inmates “Cookies” and suggests that women are power mad control freaks/repressed/sluttish? Trying to redress the balance by introducing a gender fluid cast may be a nod in the right direction but the show is essentially a product of and firmly stuck in its times.
If (and it’s a fairly big if) you accept all this for what it is then there are aspects to admire. Alex Young as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper lights up the stage whenever she is on and has the comic chops to make her scenes work; she is, deservedly the star turn in this vaudeville staging. Jordan Broatch has stage presence (which I’m sure will be put to much better use in future) as interloper J. Bowden Hapgood and sings pleasantly enough. Chrystine Symone as Nurse Faye Apple gets the best numbers and probably has the strongest singing voice, but I did feel sympathy for her having to play not one but two rather demeaning stereotypes in place of any sort of real character – though something more nuanced did emerge in her musical numbers. The rest of the cast do what they can with what they have and there is some nice attention to detail – Shane Convery is particularly worth watching. (Talking of “detail” it’s a tad confusing to see characters so firmly rooted in small town America waving paper money around with the Queen’s portrait clearly visible). The ensemble songs, although over reliant on marching motifs, are stylishly delivered and together with the big central numbers are what will remain in the memory.
I’ve already mentioned several reference points and I’d also include One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Music Man and Godspell as others; and therein lies the central problem. Anyone Can Whistle is a show and a production that really isn’t clear about what it’s trying to be and tries to compensate with sleight of hand and by being loud and brash. When a show is described as “kooky” or “off the wall” then warning bells start to sound. I really wanted to like this show but I’m afraid, like so many over the intervening fifty plus years since its inception, I didn’t.