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:
Songs For Nobodies
Wilton’s Music Hall
Reviewed – 26th March 2018
“such a talented actor giving an exceptional performance”
This highly recommended production gives two compelling reasons for a theatre visit. Firstly it provides the rare opportunity to see and hear the terrifically talented Australian Bernadette Robinson in this country and secondly to do so at one of the few surviving grand music halls in the world.
This was my first visit to Wilton’s Music Hall though it certainly won’t be my last. Tucked behind a row of terrace properties in Whitechapel, a short walk away from Tower Hill, this building has undergone a sympathetic restoration process over recent years. Entering the venue there is a sense of awe, a feeling of visiting the past which enhances the anticipation of watching the performance.
Once inside the musical hall there was an angled apron stage on which Robinson performed. This area included several items of furniture that she used to extend the visual aspects of the stories she portrayed. Behind her was a three piece band that was positioned on the raised stage, framed by a magnificent proscenium arch. The stage and her clothing were exclusively black.
Songs for Nobodies was written by Joanna Murray-Smith to specifically showcase Robinson’s exceptional vocal talents and her ability to recreate the sounds of legendary female singers. In this one woman show there are five separate monologues which involve singers from entirely different musical worlds. In each she plays both the megastar and the ‘nobody’ whose life is changed in some way by their interaction with one of those great singers.
We first get to meet Bea, a washroom attendant who meets Judy Garland on the night of her famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. Her performance of Come Rain or Come Shine sent a shiver down my spine. Next is Pearl, an usherette in Kansas City, who meets Country and Western star Patsy Cline in her dressing room on the night that thirty year old Patsy was killed in a plane crash. She sings two songs including Crazy and the portrayal of her emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice is perfect. The third monologue is both funny and sad. It tells the story of an English librarian whose father was helped by Edith Piaf to escape from a prisoner of war camp. Piaf’s voice is perfectly recreated and of the two songs performed Non, Je ne Regrette Rien is a showstopper.
Billie Holiday has an immediately recognisable voice. Inspired by jazz instrumentalists it was one that pioneered a new way of improvisation, phrasing and tempo. Again Robinson is able to master this in the story of budding journalist Too Junior Jones. Here the ‘nobody’ is a woman of privilege who meets the wonderful singer and acknowledges the obstacles she faced. In this segment there are three songs including Strange Fruit. The final monologue demonstrates perfectly the voice range that Robinson has. We are treated to a stunning version of Puccini’s Vissi D’Arte where years of her studying classical singing are obvious. It is a great story of an Irish nanny for Ari Onassis and his relationship with perhaps the greatest diva of all – Maria Callas.
The audience reaction to the show was an immediate and thoroughly deserved standing ovation. Bernadette Robinson is clearly the star of the show but the overall enjoyment is enhanced by the support she receives when on stage. The three piece backing band is set in the background and never attempts to upstage the singer. There is some remarkable lighting from Malcolm Rippeth who manages to both spotlight and flood the stage superbly. Designer Justin Nardella brings a black understated style to the stage and Justin Teasdale with Tony Gayle produce a perfect sound design in what could be a difficult acoustic hall. Simon Philips directs the show expertly ensuring the audience is never in doubt as to who the star of the show is.
I left the theatre feeling privileged to have witnessed such a talented actor giving an exceptional performance in a wonderful theatre environment. It was a real highlight of my 2018 theatrical year so far. I loved it!
Reviewed by Steve Sparrow
Photography by Nicholas Brittain
Songs For Nobodies
Wilton’s Music Hall until 7th April