It seems a curious choice to celebrate Stephen Sondheim‘s 8oth birthday with a Broadway show that lasted for just nine regular performances. That’s probably fewer than Too Close to the Sun (if we could be bothered to check) but if anyone wants to revive that to celebrate the Whingers’ 80th anniversary we will happily hobble along and join in the fun.
But Anyone Can Whistle is rarely revived, so why not? Why not?
At the Jermyn Street Theatre Issy van Randwyck fills Miss Lansbury’s no doubt very sensible shoes as Cora Hooper, the corrupt mayoress of a bankrupt town. Her equally corrupt cronies concoct a plan to revive the town by engineering a “miracle” spring with curative powers to bring in the tourists.
Well, yes, it does sound like a strange plot, now you mention it, but how could such an irresistible combination of absurdist political Brechtian comedy possibly fail?
Well, without wanting to get too technical on you, it turns out that Anyone Can Whistle is what we in the business of watching shows call “a big ol’ mess”. Indeed it’s a bigger ol’ mess than the bewildering Candide if that helps to locate it in a wider discourse. And if it’s wider discourse you are after then you are in luck as director Tom Littler and the other producers at Primavera* have crammed the programme full of essays such as “Can’t Upset The Cart: Anarchism and Fascism: a brief history” and another analysing the themes of oppression and dictatorship explored in ACW by Sondheim and Arthur Laurents .
That’s right! Sondheim and Laurents! The people that came up with the lyrics and book for Gypsy! Sadly the magic doesn’t work here. The absurdist, chirpy contradictory phrases (“brilliant in a stupid way”, “shut your mouth and tell me”) are neither funny nor illuminating despite everyone in the cast pulling out all the stops to keep it light and fast.
Aside from the town bigwigs, most of the characters are inmates of “The Cookie Jar”, the town asylum, or villagers. But which are which and who is to judge? Well, we had all that out in the Revenger’s Tragedy back in 1606 and Phil can still recite “Surely we are all mad people, and they/ Whom we think are, are not” as though it were yesterday.
It is performed in the now over-familiar John Doyle style with performers playing the musical instruments and the concept mostly works, although who knew that after 45 minutes of being the lone woodwind an oboe begins to sound like a kazoo ?
Sadly Sondheim and Laurents don’t add much to the mix and despite an admittedly promising start the strange flavour quickly begins to pall. No wonder 1964’s Broadway audiences chose Funny Girl and Hello Dolly! over ACW. The Whingers would have. Still would, given half a chance.
It is done well (but, while we’ve got the Dictionary of Quotations out, to paraphrase Mr Johnson: the wonder is to see it done at all) with some impressive costumes (Phil particularly liked the shoulders of Karl Moffatt’s Chief of Police Magruder), set and staging. Miss van Randwyck started off a bit Hyacinth Bouquet but settled down into something less derivative and she certainly can sing.
Song-wise, you get “Everybody Says Don’t” and, of course, “Anyone Can Whistle” but to be honest these are scant rewards for sitting through this interesting curiosity that never quite delivers… well, anything satisfactory, unless it’s ideas you’re after. Full marks for trying though.
* Primavera also resuscitated Sondheim’s curious failure Saturday Night at the Jermyn Street Theatre.