Annie Get Your Gun ranks for many as their desert island musical. A sweet, sharp plot, with memorable characters who have great lines, but above all it has an amazing number of show-stopping songs. It also contains the essential element necessary to make a musical work – fantasy. In this case a rags to riches romance that famously deals with the business of show business itself.
Richard Jones’s new production, starring Jane Horrocks and Julian Ovenden, is a delight because it embraces this fantasy. He correctly understands that Annie Oakley’s journey from the Wild West to Buffalo Bill’s world of show business are only part of the story. More interesting is the way her gun slinging talents and the background of the Wild West are presented.
The locals, portrayed by a strong ensemble cast, are suspicious of the touring actors arriving in their town, and they know the reputation they have as country bumpkins. At the same time the performers, headed by Chucky Venn playing a powerful Buffalo Bill, are anxious to uphold the flash image that preceds them.
The music has a reputation of its own and key to this production is Jason Carr’s re-scoring of the Irving Berlin masterpieces for a quartet of pianists who sit at the front of the stage. Carr, who has produced such wonders at the Menier Chocolate Factory, restores the music’s clarity and freshness. Some might miss the orchestration at times, but the approach has great charm.
Characters are portrayed with broad strokes and it is no small achievement that the cast manage this so well while maintaining the audiences attention and involvement.
Julian Ovenden seems born to the role of Butler. His matinee idol good looks are combined with that very old fashioned quality – charm. This likeable combination is backed up with a wonderfully strong voice that is more than a match for Jane Horrocks who excels as Annie. Playing a hillbilly tom-girl Horrocks shows a touching confusion at the lessons to be learned about life and love. With great comic ability she shows Annie is not simply naïve but more importantly instinctive – her opening song ‘Doin’ What comes Natur’lly’, pefectly embodies this. Horrocks gets great laughs but also presents a confidence that has to adapt during the story to include tact.
A fantastic design from Ultz makes the productions footlights, where the pianists sit, dominant and the pillbox shape of the stage gives a clever flavour of cinemascope. This is, afterall, all about putting on a show. Props are minimal with amusing cardboard Americana setting the scene. Annie’s amazing gun skills are presented only to our imaginations with a witty tongue in cheek light and sound display.
Influenced by her adventures in show business Annie concludes that she must present herself as a failure in order to get her man. Throughout the show of course we have seen that this is not the case – whatever the (much disputed) order of billing on the Buffalo Bill show banner – as their duets show, Oakley and Butler, as well as Ovenden and Horrocks, are a great team.
Annie’s compromise may rile contemporary audiences. It may simply baffle. Yet while the sexual politics are dated the pride Butler can never overcome surely remains a common vice. If you want to be clever you can note this productions wry commentary on the American Myth and machismo. Or you could just simply enjoy yourself.
Until 9 January 2009
Photo by Keith Pattison
Written 25 October 2009 for The London Magazine