Anyone Can Whistle

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents

The Phil Willmott Company

Union Theatre

From 08 February 2017 to 11 March 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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Who is mad in a world that’s run by madmen? The question could not be more relevant than it is today, but when this show asked the question at its première on Broadway back in 1964 it lasted only 9 performances (plus 12 previews). As the director of this revival reminds us in the programme, it was a “legendary flop”.

That hasn’t stopped revivals of something of a cult show which may be fatally flawed but does have a Sondheim score and in this production wild choreography by Holly Hughes and an enthusiastic cast that carries you with them because they invest it with such conviction.

It is the story of a US town that’s going bankrupt, mainly because its major industry was making something that didn’t wear out (unlike every other modern product which seems to have a built-in breakdown) and because it is run by profiteering officials. Now even the Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper could end up on her beam-ends. They need a miracle: so her corrupt crony Judge Schub invents one. It's a stream of water issuing from a rock for which they can claim special powers.

There is one business in the town that seems still to be successful. It’s called the Cookie Jar but they don’t make biscuits: it's a psychiatric hospital. When sceptical Nurse Apple brings its patients to the new spring to benefit from its healing waters, it’s in danger of being revealed as fake. They have to be stopped, but now they get muddled up with the other townsfolk. This has to be sorted!

That’s the core plot. Who now are the mad ones? The crazies—the “Cookies”—were grotesque twitching grimacing caricatures; now you can’t tell them from the others (hardly surprising when the same actors play them in the same costumes). As you see, the show itself is pretty crazy.

But there’s help at hand: a new arrival identified as Dr Hapgood (Oliver Stanley), a new psychiatrist, except… No, let’s not spoil it. And there’s a romantic subplot developing between a red-wigged Nurse Apple (Rachel Delooze), posing with a French accent as a miracle accreditor from Lourdes, and this new doctor: the one unable to overcome her rigid need for order, exemplified by her inability to whistle, the other an anarchistic idealist ready to give up the fight. They get the romantic numbers, but don’t give them enough warmth to make going further viable.

The rest is satire with cartoon characters brought to life. Felicity Duncan is Cora, her egomania bursting out of her red dress and her selfish dominance occasionally dissolving into panic. James Horne’s Judge Schub is like a W C Fields needing women (“my place, at six”) to quench his thirst, not booze. Mark Garfield and Christopher Laishley line up with them as their complicit Town Treasurer and Police Chief.

The whole cast goes wild as the Cookies and the townsfolk, with highpoints a bit of ballet, a number that becomes a crazy tap dance and a sequence that uses an old trick to make them seem like a whole town’s population. Director Phil Willmott seems to have infected the whole company with his enthusiasm for the piece and his enthusiasm could be catching.

You don’t need to think about who and what Laurents and Sondheim were thinking of in 1964, today’s parallels are all too obvious. This isn’t their best work but it is certainly timely.