'Anyone Can Whistle' review — Stephen Sondheim's wacky and whimsical musical returns to London

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The first significant London revival of a Stephen Sondheim musical since the great man’s death is Georgie Rankcom’s staging of this little-seen 1964 curio, Anyone Can Whistle. A whimsical political satire written with Arthur Laurents, it is, well, pretty loony. And not just because the plot involves a mass escape from the local asylum, The Cookie Jar.

The original Broadway production was a flop, but several songs became cabaret mainstays (“There Won’t Be Trumpets”, “Everybody Says Don’t”). The show has also lived on through concert stagings led by the likes of Donna Murphy, Madeline Kahn, Patti LuPone and Vanessa Williams, all eager to play the juicy role of Cora Hoover Hooper.

Cora is the gleefully corrupt mayoress who reigns over an economically depressed small town. She’s in cahoots with the treasurer and chief of police, refers to her voters as “peasants”, and only cares about her own popularity, pleasure, and staying in power. She finds a dodgy quick fix in a pretend miracle (water pouring from a rock) that draws paying crowds.

It’s clunky lampooning, but does fit well enough with our current Government, especially since Alex Young, in her fascinator, blazer and pussy-bow blouse, has an air of Liz Truss doing her best Margaret Thatcher impression.

The cast generally keep their natural accents, playing up the tale’s universality, and Young uses a buttery RP drawl, with occasional operatic flourishes. It’s a hoot. Her plot strand is the clearest tonally: it’s vaudevillian slapstick backed by a pastiche score. Young plays it as such, exaggerated and winking, at one point sitting on an audience member’s lap and stroking his hair, or, in a bravura scene, continuing her workout while brainstorming more dastardly plans — and then leaping into a tap break. It’s like a live-action cartoon.

The other half of the musical is much harder to get a handle on. It features do-gooder nurse Fay Apple, who, in order to make a subversive point, marches her “cookies” from the asylum to the miracle. If they all take the waters and there’s no change, it will prove the miracle is a hoax. Or if they merge with the other pilgrims, then no one will know who’s actually “mad”.

However, per the title song, Fay also longs to let go, or be able to whistle. Cue a new arrival, the nonconformist J Bowden Hapgood, who challenges everything from set gender roles to taxation and unthinking patriotism. He and Fay begin to bond, but it’s impossible to fully invest in them amidst the wacky plot developments and smug, stick it to the man point-scoring.

Even their intimate moments are irritatingly arch, since Fay is disguised as a pink-haired, scantily clad French vamp (don’t ask; it hasn’t aged well) and their romantic duet is pure fromage. Particularly since Rankcom adds two onion-strewn onlookers, the reveal of a hidden bed and a phallic baguette. But then that’s the quandary with this show: you can’t possibly play it straight, yet it’s always in danger of tumbling into utter absurdity.

Still, Chrystine Symone brings winning sincerity and crystalline vocals to the role of Fay. With their curly mop, piercings and cocky self-righteousness, Jordan Broatch’s Hapgood is more like an annoying anarchic student – although that does fit the character in some ways. Danny Lane is strong throughout as Cora’s partner-in-crime, Comptroller Schub.

Choreographer Lisa Stevens works her own miracles on the very narrow catwalk stage. She crisply differentiates between numbers via a range of dance styles, including Fosse-esque jazz, ballet and hip hop. Cory Shipp adds to the mayhem with his blindingly bright costumes, making the ensemble look like hippy children’s TV presenters.

There’s a resonant point somewhere in here about how we mistreat “others” in society, whether that’s artists who think differently or those who don’t fit our existing norms. But, ironically, the show is so strenuously unconventional that all meaning is lost. A fun attempt, but this is one for the Sondheim completists.

Anyone Can Whistle is at Southwark Playhouse to 7 May. Book Anyone Can Whistle tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Anyone Can Whistle (Photo courtesy of production)

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