Anyone Can Whistle, at the Union Theatre (review)

Anyone Can Whistle is not often performed these days. It is a bizarre show in many ways, which makes you look at your neighbour and whisper ‘Bonkers!’ every now and again. Even Phil Willmott’s director’s note in the programme admits the same.  It must have seemed bizarre to the 1964 audience too, as it was a big flop when it was first performed on Broadway, folding after 9 performances.  Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) had already seen some success together (including their collaboration on West Side Story) yet this musical did not have the same effect on the public.  Maybe it was trying to be too clever.  These days some of the songs appear in Sondheim revues such as Side by Side (which I last saw at the Brockley Jack Studio in 2015: review here) but more rarely in this full format, and as a self-confessed Sondheim fan, I jumped at the chance to see it.

Anyone Can Whistle is set in a small, bankrupt town in America. The opening number Me and My Town introduces us to the Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) in a striking red dress and in fine voice.  She provides a lot of the comedy in the piece; I especially enjoyed the way she screams out Schub’s name to demand his presence anytime she feels vulnerable and needs support in an evil plan. She is no benevolent character, but a greedy and power-crazed one who surrounds herself with acolytes Schub and Cooley. She fakes a miracle whereby water springs from a rock, which attracts tourists (and money) to the town. There is a ‘Cookie Jar’ in town, an institution for the mentally ill.  The ‘Cookies’ flock to the miracle too, with the objective of being ‘cured’. Their head nurse is Nurse Fay Apple (Rachel Delooze), who sees through the miracle and, protective of her Cookies, sets out to demonstrate that it is a sham and, further, that they don’t need to be cured, they should be allowed to be themselves.

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Then we meet Hapgood (Oliver Stanley), a visiting doctor (or is he? maybe you can guess what’s coming), newly arrived in town, and soon tenderness blossoms between Hapgood and Apple. This relationship is for me one of the highlights of the show.  Both actors have strong voices, Stanley’s is clear and effortless, and the duet between them Come Play Wiz Me is good fun (Fay at this point is pretending to be French, sent from Lourdes to investigate the miracle – I did tell you the plot was trying a bit too hard). The wig she wears in the last song is apparently the disguise she needs in order to let loose.  Nurse Apple is competent and practical, but when it comes to losing control, relaxng, having fun, she can only do it when pretending to be someone else.  This leads on to the title song Anyone Can Whistle, in which whistling is likened to the letting go part, which she just isn’t very good at. “Maybe you could show me how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free/ Maybe if you whistle, Whistle for me”.  Hapgood, playing the doctor which we guess he may not be, is keen to teach her how. The theme of who we are, who we seem to be, who is sane or not etc is the most interesting one in the show.

Anyone Can Whistle as a story does have some odd moments, and I wish the portrayal of the Cookies had been done differently: the large group of Cookies are acting out their disabilities in very obvious, two-dimensional ways, which seems to go against the message that there is more to them than just being ‘loonies’.  That aside, the music is still perfect to this Sondheim fan, played amazingly by just three musicians, and the cast really does credit to the score.  There are some great performances, namely by Duncan, Delooze and Stanley, and you cannot deny the enthusiasm of the whole cast.  The choreography (by Holly Hughes) has the Ensemble literally bursting off the stage of the Union Theatre, right into the audience. As a result it is really hard to sit there and not thoroughly enjoy yourself.

I saw Anyone Can Whistle on a press ticket. It plays at the Union Theatre until 11th March.

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