Sometimes good people do bad things. Sometimes good writers do bad work. Sometimes really good writers do really bad work.
Such is the case with Anyone Can Whistle which is now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
In his 2000 autobiography, Original Story by Arthur Laurents, the show’s bookwriter calls it a ‘splendid failure’ and it’s difficult to argue with that. And in spite of his brilliance as a playwright and bookwriter (of among other’s, West Side Story and Gypsy) it’s hard not to lay most of the blame at his door.
The show is a confused mess. An absurdist conflation of ideas about 1960’s America (the show’s original Broadway run of 12 previews and 9 actual performances was in 1964) that really hasn’t aged at all well. The characters have no depth and are mere ciphers for the cartoonish narrative.
The mayor of a dying town, Cora Hoover Hooper (a brilliantly comic Alex Young who works her socks off to try and add life to the material) and her right hand man Comptroller Schub (a suitably scheming Danny Lane) come up with the idea of staging a miracle to bring money into the town. Thinking that the miracle is real, the nurse of the local mental institution, known as The Cookie Jar, Nurse Fay Apple (Chrystine Symone) takes along her charges – the ‘cookies’ – to see if they can be cured. A stranger turns up to help, J Bowden Hapgood (Jordan Broatch) and the inmates escape. Stuff happens – like I said, it’s a mess – and in the end we’re left questioning who’s sane? And who’s the cookie?
So, what’s it about? Well, the nearest I could get is conformity. The show points out the absurdity of being part of the whole edifice of the military-industrial complex, whose only reason for existence is to produce bombs that nobody wants to use. It is, as the Americans are fond of saying, ‘sophomoric’. And when you’re watching a show that doesn’t work all the other tiny niggles that might have been glossed over in a hit become all too obvious. Even though it’s very clearly a period piece, the sexism, the attitudes towards mental illness, and the use of stereotypes is very wearing after a while.
There are however some stand-out songs; ‘Anyone Can Whistle’; ‘There won’t be Trumpets’; ‘Everybody Says Don’t’; and ‘A Parade in Town’ have all found lives outside the show, but lift them from the score and what’s left is pretty underwhelming.
For a story so firmly grounded in the America of the 1960’s – a point rammed home by the sea of multi-coloured Crimplene in which the cast were dressed by Cory Shipp – I didn’t understand Georgie Rankcom’s directorial choice of having some of the cast use English accents and others not. I say some…the accents of some others were un-locateable though there were clearly sound issues, so this couldn’t have helped.
The fact that this revival is happening is clearly due to the death last year of the composer (though this is a weird choice of show to stand as the great man’s epitaph!). We will, I’m sure, be heartily sick of hearing Sondheim’s music by the end of 2022 – those of us not sick of it already – so perhaps then producers will leave him alone for a bit. There are plenty of works out there by dead – and indeed living – composers that are long overdue a revival. And many ‘undiscovered’ shows far better than Anyone Can Whistle – many of them by British writers.
Cast a wider net, producers. And for heavens sake, read the book of the show you’re going to be investing your money in!
- Book: Arthur Laurents
- Music, & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
- Director: Georgie Rankcom
- Cast includes: Alex Young, Chrystine Symone, Jordan Broatch, Danny Lane, Samuel Clifford, Renan Teodoro, Nathan Taylor, Kathryn Akin, Marisha Morgan, Teddy Hinde, Hana Ijicho, Shane Convery, Jenson Tudtud.
- Southwark Playhouse
- Until: 7th May 2022
- Running time: 2hrs 30 including with one 20 min interval