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'Anything Goes' review — this fabulously escapist Cole Porter musical is still the top

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

One of the undoubted highlights of 2021 was Broadway director Kathleen Marshall’s sensational revival of Anything Goes. With its gleefully silly ocean liner-set story, thrilling tap dances, irresistible Cole Porter score, and with American star Sutton Foster reprising her Tony-winning performance as Reno Sweeney, it was the perfect “Welcome back” to large-scale live theatre.

So, is this returning production, which features significant cast changes like Kerry Ellis taking over from Foster, still a seaworthy vessel? Absolutely. My audience was deliriously happy, stopping the show cold for two standing ovations, and that same sense of wellbeing pervaded the room. This is de-lovely escapism as tonic, and it’s just as worthwhile as any lofty drama. God knows we all need it.

The plot remains madcap, with various romantic configurations tangled together during the crossing of the SS American - including Wall Street broker Billy pining for debutante Hope, while nightclub singer Reno longs for Billy, and Hope’s English aristocrat fiancé, Evelyn, is mainly entranced by US lingo. Add in mobsters on the run, a host of disguises, sailors and showgirls, dogs and puns, and you’ve got musical comedy bliss.

Of course, no human being can do exactly what Foster does, not least since Marshall’s production was specifically pegged to her otherworldly skill set. But if Ellis lacks her brand of sleek insouciance, she brings something just as wonderful: an infectious joy. This is a generous and inviting performance that seems to say “I’m having so much fun – aren’t you?”. There are fewer moments of solo brilliance than with Foster, but more of a sense of camaraderie.

It’s also a pleasure to see Ellis – best known for musicals like Wicked and We Will Rock You – getting to show a very different side of herself. Yes, she can tap dance, with both buoyancy and precision, and her creamy vocals are a delicious match for Porter’s jazzy score. Her Reno is sweeter and more easily wounded, pain flickering across her face as she sings “You obviously don’t adore me”, but she’s still believable as the savvy dame who can hang with gangsters.

Speaking of which, Denis Lawson (succeeding a laconic Robert Lindsay) gives us a motor-mouthed Moonface Martin, with a convincing accent and latent violent streak. Though he’s amusingly avuncular in his offer to kill anyone standing in Billy’s way, you also believe him. He throws himself into the numbers, forming a winning partnership with Ellis in the competitive "Friendship", and is a dab hand at the comedy too – like adopting a fake English accent that slides inexorably into South African.

Bonnie Langford is luxury casting as Evangeline Harcourt, and she wrings every last drop out of that supporting role. Though sadly there are few chances to see her dance, she reminds us what a talented physical comedian she is – and does add a quick flourish during her curtain call. Simon Callow is another fantastic addition, giving the ever-soused Eli Whitney wonderful cascading speech patterns.

The returning cast are better than ever. Carly Mercedes Dyer, like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, moves “like jello on springs”, and her vamp Irma is a symphony of squeals and cackles. Haydn Oakley is giving hands down the finest comic performance in town. When Evelyn unleashed his inner gypsy via Ministry of Funny Walks-style flamenco, I actually cried laughing.

Samuel Edwards is a pitch-perfect leading man and his Billy satisfyingly matures over the piece, while the golden-voiced Nicole-Lily Baisden has relaxed into the role of Hope. When the pair dance together in Fred and Ginger fashion, Baisden melting into his arms, their love is undeniable.

Marshall - quite rightly - won an Olivier Award for her choreography earlier this year, and her production numbers are still wondrous. It’s not just the scale or the intricacy of the work in the showstoppers like "Blow, Gabriel Blow" and the title song, but the way that they keep building and morphing. Just when you think she can’t top herself, she does.

Jon Morrell’s fabulous period costumes - the silks and satins, the crisp sailor suits, the gorgeous silhouettes - are perfectly matched by Derek McLane’s set, a gleaming white ship with eye-catching Art Deco detail. Hugh Vanstone’s lush lighting sets the romantic mood, and the orchestra does rousing justice to Porter standards like "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "All Through the Night".

There’s the odd contemporary parallel, like the satire of our obsession with celebrity, but, just like when it was first staged during the Depression, this is really about stepping into another world and leaving our troubles behind. Quite simply: it’s the top.

Anything Goes is at the Barbican Centre to 3 September. Book Anything Goes tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Kerry Ellis and cast in Anything Goes (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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