Not even Stephen Sondheim got it right every time. This 1964 musical has the feel of being penned by a tyro, albeit one who is a genius. While responding to a spirit of counter-culture this revival, directed by Georgie Rankcom, adds confusion.
It’s sacrilegious to criticise Sondheim (and rightly so). Thankfully many faults can be allocated to Arthur Laurents’ book. After all, there are lots of good songs here you will probably recognise.
Anyone Can Whistle has a “rundown town” that manufactures a religious miracle for financial gain. But surprisingly little is done with this idea. At the same time, inmates from a mental asylum called, ahem, the Cookie Jar, run amuck. Surprise! It’s hard to tell who is really insane. There’s an odd lack of satire as the show aims to be a parable and ends up simplistic and tiresome.
The production doesn’t iron out the show’s problems (which would be tough). Attempts at audience participation are ham-fisted and the humour poorly delivered (too many jokes are rushed). There’s no sense of place or time and, with accents all over the place, it seems safe to say that’s deliberate. But the piece is stuck in its period, preoccupied with adolescent rebellion, vague protest and forms of therapy.
Rankcom does a good job working with the traverse stage and Lisa Stevens’ choreography is admirably energetic. But the performances are too broad and there are problems with hearing lines clearly enough. What fun Sondheim’s lyrics possess is often lost.
Alex Young, as the town’s mayor, is a notable exception to all the production’s problems. Like her character, Young is a woman who can handle a crowd, and she adds laughs as well as silliness, which helps in a piece that takes itself surprisingly seriously.
Other performances need more nuance – how much this could be injected despite the script is open to debate. Our hero and heroine, J Bowden Hapgood and Nurse Fay Apple, performed with determination by Jordan Broatch and Chrystine Symone, are flat and their romance unconvincing. Is the somewhat flippant view of mental illness that comes with the show’s simplicity the problem? Even if it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it has repercussions for their love affair that Broatch and Symone’s undoubtable charm cannot save. This too-brief encounter comes across as odd. We only learn catchphrases for characters.
The societal critiques in Anyone Can Whistle and the topic of mental health have an appeal. Rankcom and his cast respond with genuine enthusiasm to challenging the mainstream. It’s nice so see this inspiration. But, as the work itself is immature, the production becomes tarnished with the same quality. Enthusing an audience about such a hotchpotch of ideas, while not exactly needing a miracle, turns out to be a leap of faith too far.
Until 7 May 2022
Photos by Danny With A Camera