Anyone Can Whistle at The Southwark Playhouse
The revival of this 1964 Stephen Sondheim musical could hardly be more prescient in 2022. Anyone Can Whistle deals in themes of tolerance and acceptance – including self-acceptance – that speak profoundly to the age in which we live, where mental health is at the forefront of public consciousness. What’s more, staged at Southwark Playhouse – tucked in beside a railway bridge next to Elephant and Castle – it’s also tremendous fun.
In a town suffering from a depressed economy, its inept, vain and venal mayor arranges a fake miracle in order to boost tourism and save her own political hide. But when Nurse Apple of the local ‘Cookie Jar’ – described, in his book, Finishing the Hat, by Sondheim as ‘a rest home for non-conformists’ – brings her patients to receive the miracle, they intermix with the rest of the population. Seeing this, the mayor fears the exposure of her scam and makes efforts to reincarcerate the ‘Cookies’, leading – predictably – to a swathe of farcical complications. Amidst this, the reserved, deeply self-critical Nurse Apple goes on a voyage of self-discovery when a charismatic newcomer arrives in town extolling the virtues of self-acceptance.
It’s my first visit to Southwark Playhouse. Immediately, I am struck by the uniqueness of the space. The small stage is little more than a catwalk, elevated about a foot off the ground, and sandwiched right between two banked sets of audience seating. It resembles a stage made up for a fashion show, but doesn’t look anything like any musical staging arrangement I’ve ever seen. But it’s clever. Someone thought carefully about this. (Specifically, Cory Shipp, the set designer, thought carefully about this.) And it works. At one end, the five-piece band is located on a mezzanine constructed from scaffolding, just beneath the pitched roof. The building feels industrial and functional; a perfunctory collaboration of concrete and steel. And yet what this team have produced here is a show of incredible warmth and humanity.
Anyone Can Whistle is anchored by a show-stealing performance from Alex Young as Mayor Cora Hoover Hooper, fresh from a similarly brilliant run in the Sheffield Crucible’s She Loves Me, which I had the pleasure of enjoying in January. She is the comedic rock around which the rest of the play is built – a quarterback of hilarity. She involves the audience early on, playing up to us as we become both her electorate and her playthings. She sits on one chap’s knee. And as the show progresses, she only gets funnier, throwing herself with abandon into her character’s deluded sense of self-importance. When she sings, she belts out her numbers with aplomb. Only five minutes into the show, I already know it’s going to be good.
The two other leads, Nurse Apple (Chrystine Symone) and the town’s new arrival, J. Bowden Hapgood (Jordan Broatch), are excellent. Both are note-perfect singers. Symone brings a compelling intensity to her role, and the debutant Broatch brings a casual, gloriously fluid confidence to theirs. Danny Lane provides yet more comic relief as the mayor’s favourite subordinate, Comptroller Schub. As a group, the dazzlingly diverse company are superb – bringing impressively tight vocals and choreography, as well as huge amounts of energy.
The band is small but perfectly formed; under the musical direction of Natalie Pound, they make light work of the score – something that always sounds far easier than it is when you’re dealing with Sondheim. If there’s one slight concern, it’s that the sound balance isn’t quite right. The acoustic percussion rather dominates in the small, tightly-enclosed performance space, which means we occasionally lose some of the lyrics from the singers – some subtle adjustments from the sound engineer may be called for.
So to the musical itself. Arthur Laurents’ book is superbly pitched. If the first act is funny, the second is an absolute riot. Meanwhile Sondheim does what Sondheim does best; he concocts a set of songs both intricate and emotive that drive the story along without ever feeling disconnected from the book. We never have that disconcerting sense, as we do in so many lesser musicals, that ‘and now a song is coming’. With Sondheim we never notice the gears changing; the transition from speaking to singing is seamless – almost unnoticeable. I’ve said before that Sondheim, whom we sadly lost in November last year aged 91, is perhaps the greatest composer and lyricist in the history of musical theatre. Everything he does is musically interesting. In the course of his life, he wrote in many styles – and yet there’s always something distinctively Sondheimish about his work. His loss is a huge one, but he leaves us with a wonderful catalogue of work to revisit, with less-often-performed gems like this show ripe for revivals in the coming years.
Anyone Can Whistle is a musical that feels very relevant today. It makes you think without being preachy. Its cast pull it off with great verve and some sublime, note-perfect-every-time vocal wizardry. Alex Young is hilarious. The whole thing is utterly joyous. Go and see it.
Review by Daniel Bennett
Anyone Can Whistle is playing at The Southwark Playhouse until 7th May. Visit their website to find out more and to book tickets.