Anything Can Happen – St James Theatre

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A workshop presentation of Anything Can Happen, a revue celebrating the songs of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, took place at the St James Theatre, London.

Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have been creating musicals together for 30 years now. So a revue which aims to catalogue those three decades in a two-hour show will have many rich pickings from which to choose. The revue’s creator and director, Simon Greiff, has chosen to take a reverse chronological approach to the duo’s works. Thus Act I looks at recent musicals Soho Cinders and Betty Blue Eyes, heading backwards through their work on the stage version of Mary Poppins and their beautiful interpretation of Peter Pan. Act II continues the trip back in time, focusing on fairytale musicals Just So and Honk! before finishing with their first collaboration, Tutankhamun.

Such a structure ought to deliver diminishing returns, with numbers created after many years of commercial experience giving way to the naivety of youth. But it’s a sign of Stiles and Drewe’s ongoing consistency that it never feels that way. Apart from the raucously bawdy Soho Cinders – a Cinderella retelling set in the seedy worlds of Old Compton Street and City Hall – there is a child-like wholesomeness to their work.

In casting this workshop presentation of his revue, Greiff has chosen four performers – Annalene Beechey, Daniel Boys, James Gillan and Lauren Samuels – who are as comfortable with each other as they are with the material. Ensemble numbers such as Soho Cinders’ ‘Wishing For the Normal’ or Betty Blue Eyes’ ‘Magic Fingers’ are deftly balanced between the four voices. Elsewhere, numbers that were originally solo pieces are split between two performers, each singer’s own characteristics bringing out their own nuance to Drewe’s carefully crafted lyrics.

Among the segments devoted to each of the duo’s musicals are songs written for other sources. One such number is The Shakespeare Revue’s ‘Carrying a Torch’, a tribute to the theatre über-fan, sung with great tenderness by Beechey.

An interesting segment in Act I sees the inclusion of a couple of songs from two Roald Dahl musicals that never saw the light of day. The first is from an adaptation of Matilda that pre-dated both the Dennis Kelly/Tim Minchin version and the Danny De Vito-produced film, followed by a love song to the smell of chocolate that formed part of their bid to get involved with the recent adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a project that ended up being written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). And while they’re both perfectly fine in their way – the song from Matilda in particular, revelling in the glories of storybook imagination – it also makes one relieved that those particular projects never got off the ground. It feels like Stiles and Drewe’s style is never quite abrasive enough for Dahl’s work: there’s a reason why Quentin Blake’s scratchy pen drawings fit in with the author’s prose.

Where the composers did excel in bringing a well-loved children’s story to life is in their adaptation of Peter Pan, which remains one of their strongest musicals. With the breathless anticipation of ‘There’s Something in the Air Tonight’ and the ingeniously punning title of flying song ‘Never Land’, there’s a theme of celebrating childhood and childishness that permeates throughout the rest of Stiles and Drewe’s work. And Daniel Boys, delivering a fearsome Captain Hook, shows a side that his roles as romantic lead rarely taps, while James Gillan powerfully reprises his role as Pan to deliver a rousing finale to the first half.

Act II is dominated by the composers’ animal-based musicals Just So and Honk!, part of their earliest work. Despite both shows being made for a young family audience, they still contain great emotional moments, most notably from Lauren Samuels’ ‘Wait a Bit’, Just So’s big torch song. Both that number and Tutankhamun’s ‘Flowers For a King’ are up there with the greatest of Stiles and Drewe’s collaborations, and for the duo to have come up with ballads of such resonance and power so early in their careers is astonishing.

They also mean that, with Anything Can Happen’s reverse chronological structure, the show ends on a musical high. While there are still rough edges to this revue – something that this workshop presentation will help sort out – future performances should be unmissable.

Scott Matthewman

Readers may be interested in:

Exclusive – Simon Greiff directs Stiles and Drewe revue workshop – Interview

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