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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Anyone Can Whistle
Jermyn Street Theatre Spring 2010

Stephen Sondheim's 1964 musical is, in this tiny-scale revival, an amiable but very uneven little show that will prove a satisfying entertainment if you overlook its problems and don't expect too much.

Sondheim buffs feel about this show the way Jerry Herman fans feel about Mack and Mabel - the mere fact that it was a flop (9 performances on Broadway) won't deter the faith that it is a lost masterpiece.

Well, it isn't. It has a couple of excellent songs and some good comic moments, and that can be enough to make for a modestly successful evening, but you do have to cherry-pick them out of the muddle around them.

Chief problem of the play is Arthur Laurents' book, which can't decide whether it is political satire, serious attack on religious hypocrisy, romance about the awakening of a repressed woman or celebration of the myth that the crazy are saner than the rest of us.

A corrupt mayoress and her inept aides who rule a depressed town create a fake miracle to bring in tourists, while having to deal with that hoary theatrical staple, the free spirit from somewhere else who has come to shake things up.

He frees the patients of the local loony bin, who then can't be distinguished from the ordinary citizens, while wooing the head nurse whose frigidity (except when she puts on a blonde wig and French accent - don't ask) is symbolised by her inability to whistle.

To this confusion, director Tom Litler adds his conviction, spelled out in a programme note, that the musical is actually a serious Brechtian attack on fascism, which he and his designers make manifest with some heavy-handed and distracting touches.

Chief among the attractions of this revival is a delightful comic performance by Issy van Randwyck as the mayor. Exploiting the intimacy of the theatre (not much larger, in total, than your sitting room) and her own kewpie doll looks to the fullest, she mugs and doubletakes her way through instantaneous switches among confusion, delight, randiness and despair.

It's a performance that almost certainly goes against the text - I cannot imagine Angela Lansbury playing it that way in 1964 - but it is so much fun that you can't possibly care, and the energy level of the show drops precipitously whenever she leaves the stage.

As the outsider, David Ricardo-Pearce does full justice to the show's best song, Everybody Says Don't, and has fun with Rosalie Craig as the nurse in the franglais Come Play Wiz Me ('Mais oui - we may'), but seems totally lost in the clumsily staged Simple.

Rosalie Craig risks turning her character's repression into facelessness as she keeps threatening to disappear into the chorus, but she comes alive in the blonde wig and holds the stage when alone for her big numbers, the title song and Take One Step.

Following what is fast becoming the norm for small-sale musicals, the chorus double as the band, sometimes bringing their instruments onstage in character, adding to the attractively modest let's-put-on-a-show feel of the evening.

Sondheim fans, and anyone interested in the early work of the master, will definitely want to see this, and anyone who comes along just for the fun of it won't be disappointed - as long as you don't expect too much.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Anyone Can Whistle - Jermyn Street 2010