Anyone Can Whistle continues at the Union Theatre, London until 11 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Like the asylum inmates that populate the show, Anyone Can Whistle – Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ experimental musical of 1964 – gets let out for a brief spell of fresh air.
And just as those inmates (or ‘Cookies’, as they’re known) are insane and best kept locked away, so too is this show clinically and fatally bonkers… and you can see why it’s been put out to pasture on the funny farm.
On saying that, this new production at the Union from director Phil Willmott is one that fans of Sondheim, and those who like their theatre on the absurd side, won’t want to miss.
Whistle is famously – or infamously – the Sondheim show that tanked on its Broadway debut even faster than his other flop, Merrily We Roll Along. It scraped its way through 12 previews and died after just nine performances (compared with Merrily’s 52 previews and 16 performances).
But whereas Merrily had plenty of redeeming features and just needed the right creative team, Whistle has never worked on stage, almost entirely due to the screwball script by Laurents – clearly a writer who was too indulged and left unchecked.
Willmott confronts the same issues that have faced everyone who’s tried to make this show work, but he has spun enough theatrical gold from the material to present an entertaining, if psychotropic experience.
Thanks for much of this has to go to choreographer Holly Hughes, who keeps the 19-strong cast waltzing and tapping their way through the show with great style. The ensemble work is fantastic, vocally and choreographically.
The plot centres on a depressed American everytown run by a corrupt Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) and her team of cronies.
In an attempt to woo visitors, the councillors contrive for a rock to miraculously spout water (delivered in reality by a pump), attracting busloads of gullible pilgrims.
Nurse Fay Apple (Rachel Delooze) from the local mental asylum – nicknamed the Cookie Jar – decides to test the credibility of the miracle by having her charges bathe in the hallowed waters, at which point the Cookies escape and mingle with the pilgrims, leaving the councillors unable to tell the two groups apart.
Into this mix arrives a stranger, J. Bowden Hapgood (Oliver Stanley), who asks for directions to the Cookie Jar and is assumed to be the new psychiatrist.
He’s tasked with using his brilliance to sort the Cookies from the pilgrims, and soon falls for the control-freakish Nurse Apple. He finds her a martinet so uptight and rigid in her approach to life that she can’t even whistle (hence the title), but tries to loosen her up with his own devil-may-care charm.
The leads all do a commendable job of bringing these kooky characters to life. Duncan is beautifully cast as the high-maintenance mayoress, making up for her occasional lack of vocal power with a deliciously comic turn. She also looks the part in costume designer Penn O’Gara’s scarlet dress and black walnut-whip hairdo.
Her scheming partnership with the town’s Comptroller Hapgood (the excellent James Horne, looking like a cross between Thomas the Tank Engine’s Fat Controller and Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags) make for delightful scenes, and her opening number, ‘Me and My Town’, is an exhilarating jazz number, with the ‘Page Boys’ from the ensemble – in this version cleverly re-cast as the press corp – lifting her from her chaise longue and holding her aloft.
Delooze and Stanley also pair up well – she petite and sassy, he awkward and nerdy – and their Act II duets ‘Come Play Wiz Me’ and ‘With So Little to Be Sure Of’ are two of the show’s high-points.
As a soloist, Delooze also gets to enjoy the Sondheim standards ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’” and the title song, both of which she handles with confidence.
Musically, it’s as bare as the set, with MD Richard Baker on the piano accompanied by just bass guitar and drums. Despite the scaled-back band, the score gets a good airing, and there’s much to be excited about. It’s certainly not Sondheim’s best songwriting, but even on a bad day, he can still turn out crackers.
So, what’s it all about? Who knows! It’s 1960s satire given a big experimental and absurdist twist. With Trump’s presidency a reality, you could say – as director Willmott does in the programme notes – that it’s a timely production, raising issues about corruption, faith versus science, human rights and political polarities.
The concept of the lunatics taking over the asylum is not new but it does seem apt at the moment, even if it does come from the era of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – note the similarities between Cookies and Cuckoos – and that period’s challenging of psychoanalysis and psychiatry.
I suspect that, without Sondheim’s memorable numbers – many of which have become standards – this show would still be at the bottom of the theatrical ocean.
Whatever Laurents and Sondheim were trying to say gets lost in the buffoonery, and audiences are left bamboozled by the pinballing plot. It’s the self-indulgent result of two intellects being too smart-ass for their own good.
I don’t imagine it will ever be salvageable, even with a complete overhaul of the book (although Willmott’s choice to end Act I sooner than scripted at least helps balance the show). But it’s no less entertaining as a curio and period piece, with just enough resonance with today’s politics to make it worth a punt. You’d be mad to miss it.
Anyone Can Whistle at the Union Theatre – new gallery of images