The young company DONOTALIGHT brings to the stage a compelling play by Flora Wilson Brown that speaks for the new generation.
A minimal set (Victoria Maytom) comprises some rubber plants positioned on random flight cases. A central shoddy brown sofa, set obliquely, doubles as the front seats of a car.
Alice (Hannah Khalique-Brown) enters the darkened space (Lighting Designer Ryan Day), her face illuminated by the screen of a mobile phone into which she is about to tell her story; the only way she can come to terms with putting her years of trauma into words.
Max (Ethan Moorhouse) and Hannah (Martha Watson Allpress) meet as old university mates, lift-sharing as they drive to Bristol for a mutual friend’s wedding. The bride is Hannah’s former flame, it transpires. Enlightened direction (Harry Tennison) has the couple move freely about the space, engaging in rough and tumble, falling into slow motion scenes, all the while the car journey continues.
These two scenarios occur together in the same space and yet lie a distance apart. Sometimes the conversations coincide and the same words are spoken. At other times there appears a parallel mood between them. At first the technique seems clumsy and I fear that I cannot follow the two stories simultaneously; I worry I am missing something crucial. But the initial clash is intended and it sorts itself out as things progress.
Martha Watson Allpress and Ethan Moorhouse both excel in the relaxed friendship between Hannah and Max. Their smiles, laughter, and repartee are natural and free flowing. If Max is just a bit too much boy-next-door to be a convincing world-leading rock musician, maybe even megastars have a day off from their on-stage personas. Hannah Khalique-Brown is outstanding as the exposed and vulnerable Alice in what is essentially an extended monologue. Her initial quirky mannerisms underlining Alice’s inherent nervousness develop into something else as she finds the courage to speak out, not just for herself but for others too. Some curious staging of a final scene as Alice talks of the future for the only time in the play is marred by her passive positioning, speaking upstage.
Flora Wilson Brown’s thoughtful and powerful script raises so many questions concerning behavioural responsibility and culpability, coercion, and self-doubt. If anyone should consider that the abuses brought to light through the #MeToo movement are only historical then Flora Wilson Brown’s direct and dynamic writing should redress those thoughts. It is only up to us to listen.
“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.