Anyone Can Whistle
Reviewed – 5th April 2022
“in a packed space, on a tiny runway stage, and with a very green excitable cast, Anyone Can Whistle hits all the right notes”
If a play hasn’t seen a main stage since its inception in the ‘60s, running for only twelve previews and nine performances before closing, what does that mean? And a Sondheim no less. Perhaps he was just so ahead of his time, the audience couldn’t appreciate his brilliance? Or, more likely, was it just not his best, the fly in the ointment of an otherwise flawless career?
Directed by Georgie Rankcom, Anyone Can Whistle is certainly an oddball of a musical. The plot is absurd and slightly over-complicated; the music is often stubbornly un-catchy, and crammed with lyrical mouthfuls; it just feels a bit messy for such behemoths as Sondheim and Laurents. But perhaps because the Southwark Playhouse’s production is necessarily smaller than a full west-end staging, the chaos feels magnified, almost guerrilla in energy, and you know what? It works.
Not wasting any time, the plot gets going from the first note. Greedy, corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Alex Young) is looking to make some quick cash, and her trusty sycophant Comptroller Schub (Danny Lane) has come up with a plan: Fake a miracle and sell tickets for the honour of seeing it.
It feels like Alex Young originated her role, she’s so perfect for it. Mincing around in a fuchsia pink fascinator and matching blazer, she’s a perfect toad, caring not a jot for her townsfolk and having a glorious time of her own. Sporting razor-sharp comic timing, she also has a spectacular voice, seemingly making very little effort to reach big rich notes after Sondheim’s trademark long breathless singing rants. Young and Lane have a really gross, potent chemistry as they plot and scheme, and in a strange twist you do find yourself almost rooting for them in the end.
The rest of the cast give off a naïve optimism, as though they’re just thrilled to be invited; indeed, for Jordan Broatch, playing J. Bowden Hapgood, the sort-of saviour of the day, this is their professional debut. On occasion I catch them grinning sweetly when the focus is elsewhere on stage, soaking it all in. For nearly any other performance this would be wildly unprofessional, but Hapgood is a doomed idealist and so it’s perfectly suiting to have someone so wide-eyed for the part.
Chrystine Symone, playing Nurse Fay Apple, the no-nonsense do-gooder, often comes across as very nervous, which she needn’t be: she has the most fantastic voice, singing honestly and without flourish in her low notes, and absolutely soaring in her top register.
Considering how little the stage is- a slender runway dividing the auditorium in two- choreographer Lisa Stevens really packs it in. I especially enjoy the little number between Hapgood and the mayoress, as they frug and bunny-hop seductively in unison.
Cory Shipp’s design reflects the cast’s unadulterated joyousness, with wild ‘70s prints and garish clashing colours. And Alex Musgrave’s lighting design takes a similar cue, making liberal use of the disco ball, along with bold washes of pink and blue.
As ever at the Southwark, the live band, led by Natalie Pound, is spot on, never missing a beat but somehow promoting that same sense of purposeful chaos. There is a slight problem with levels at the beginning, and with Sondheim being so lyric-heavy, there are moments when quieter percussion or, one supposes, much, much louder vocals would be helpful. But ultimately, it’s all a good fun mess anyhow, and the plot points make themselves known eventually.
It’s understandable that in a huge auditorium, having spent wild amounts of money on production, everyone in their black-tie best, a musical like this would feel underwhelming and confusing. But in a packed space, on a tiny runway stage, and with a very green excitable cast, Anyone Can Whistle hits all the right notes.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Danny With A Camera
Anyone Can Whistle
Southwark Playhouse until 7th May
Recently reviewed at this venue: