“SuRie, as the gun-toting Annie, carries the show – nailing her character with gunslinging accuracy.”
There could potentially be a fair bit to censure in the 1950s American musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”, especially with modern audiences whose awareness of racism, sexism and cultural sensitivities have shifted since the musical was written. And Irving Berlin’s “The Girl That I Marry” would surely get even the laziest feminist pounding her twitter feed in rage at its undisguised misogyny and condescension towards women. And throwaway jokes about swindling Native Americans out of their oil? Come on! But that is a debate I’m not entering into here. Except to say that the creators behind the inaugural season at Lavender Theatre have rightly decided that we have the wit and imagination to know that we are watching something from a different age. We can cope. And Simon Hardwick’s production, surrounded by the purple haze of lavender fields, shoots down any pre-packed misgivings that people may have in a feel-good blaze of escapism and classic entertainment.
It’s hard to come across a more winning opener than “There’s no Business Like Show Business”, which builds from its mellow summer breeze into a gusty and gutsy chorus, framing the story within Buffalo Bill’s Wild West touring show. Elliot Broadfoot’s impressive presence as Buffalo Bill Cody keeps a tight rein on the action, pinpointing the chapters of what is essentially a good old-fashioned love story. Annie Oakley (SuRie) rocks up into a small town in Ohio, and with her extraordinary shooting skills, catches the attention of champion marksman Frank Butler (Charlie McCullagh). The two are instantly smitten, but when Annie’s rising star begins to outshine Frank’s, the trouble starts.
SuRie, as the gun-toting Annie, carries the show – nailing her character with gunslinging accuracy. Gamine, yet sassily aware of her femininity, her charisma hangs over the stage like aromatic gunpowder. SuRie is clearly “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly”. Equally believable is McCullagh’s Frank Butler. The chemistry between the two cautions us to stand back while sparks fly yet draws us in close to get a true feel for their inescapable magnetism. Drawn into their orbit are a fine cast. Frank’s spurned, scheming assistant, Dolly Tate, is gilded with Chlöe Hart’s comedic flair, while Jay Faisca’s ‘Chief Sitting Bull’ has a self-deprecating gravitas that gives a nod and a wink to the caricature he could be, yet still staying believable.
The open-air setting lends an appropriate festival feel, though more village fete than rodeo. It is as the sun sets that the magic filters through, conjured by and large by Berlin’s iconic songs. The classic foot tappers cannot fail to plant a smile on us, while the more stripped back, softer numbers dig deeper. SuRie’s vocals come into their own during “Moonshine Lullaby”, for example, or “I Got Lost in His Arms”, before rising to the duel of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” with McCullagh – a fabulous moment of affectionate rivalry and harmonic one-upmanship.
Everybody wins. The guy gets the girl, and the girl gets her man (after learning, of course, that “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”). The real winners are the audience. It is a little bit out in the sticks, but that shouldn’t stop anyone making the effort to get there. “Let’s Go On With the Show… Everything about it is appealing”. The newly formed Lavender Theatre are on to a winner with this well aimed revival, that hits the mark.
“The production values are up there with the best”
On its release in 1935, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film of “Top Hat” was recognised for its flaws but generally it was received positively. The New York Times praised the film’s musical numbers, but criticized the storyline, describing it as “a little on the thin side”. In retrospect it was described as a “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion”. When the musical adaptation had its world premiere a decade ago, little, if anything, had been done to thicken out the story but six more songs by Irving Berlin were added to the eight that were featured in the film. Initially playing out of town it made its home at the Aldwych Theatre for the next year and a half.
The revival at the Mill at Sonning sees it scaled down; but only in terms of the intimacy of its playing space. The production values are up there with the best, and the feel-good spectacularity (yes, that is a word) is enhanced by being so up close to the action. Nearly a century on from the golden-age of musicals, we can still feel the glow that warms our hearts when we most need it. A “glamorous and enthralling depression-era diversion” has never been more apt a description.
Let’s get the one and only gripe out of the way. “A little on the thin side” is putting it politely. Good, that’s out of the way. The story is based on a singular comedy of error, and spun thinner, but director Jonathan O’Boyle has worked on it with an alchemist’s skill to create theatrical gold. The story follows Broadway star Jerry Travers (Jonny Labey) who arrives in London for his West End stage debut, and then promptly falls for socialite Dale Tremont (Billie-Kay). But being a screwball comedy, things do not go to plan of course. Tremont mistakes Travers for producer Horace Hardwick (Paul Kemble) – a married man – and is therefore horrified at his advances. The themes and wisecracks are pushing their sell by date, but there is nothing that can be done about that, so we are left to face the music and dance.
From the opening bar of the overture to the closing bar of the finale we are enchanted. Jonny Labey is in his element, letting his natural energy and joy wash over us in glorious waves of smooth charisma. Billie-Kay’s cool Dale Tremont counterbalances nicely, gradually warming to Travers’ irresistible charm while never letting herself boil over. Kemble gives a glorious portrayal of put-upon producer Hardwick, matched by Julia J Nagle’s crisp, classy and cool Madge – the wife who pulls the shots. A terrific ensemble fills out the space with West End pizzazz, and the smaller roles are beefed up with real comic flair: Brendan Cull is a constant delight as Bates – Hardwick’s eccentric valet. And Andy Rees hilariously hams it up as Dale’s personal dresser, Beddini.
Everyone is a triple-threat and with Ashley Nottingham’s creative, sharp, synchronistic choreography everyone shares the spotlight. Even the scene changes are choreographed into the action. Natalie Titchener’s costumes seem spun from the golden-age itself, while Jason Denvir’s ingeniously crafted Art Deco set transports us, by sheer sleight of hand, to each location – keeping up to speed with the costume changes.
Many of Irving Berlin’s best-known numbers are given the all-star treatment here. Arranged by Musical Director Francis Goodhand it is hard to believe that he is accompanied by just two other band members (Joe Atkin-Reeves on reeds and woodwind and Callum White on drums and percussion).
Ultimately, though, the show belongs to Labey. The original film was a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Labey comfortably steps into his shoes. His infectious and delightful (often cheeky) grin follows us all the way home. We also cannot shake off the froth and the feelgood factor. Entertainment dances with absurdity and it is the perfect combination. Throw in dinner as well, and the stunning setting of the Mill, you certainly feel like you’re puttin’ on the Ritz.