The Union Theatre’s decision to put on a rendition of Anyone Can Whistle is exciting: it is a lesser known Sondheim musical which has never enjoyed much fame or success. It is a strangely plotted, absurdist piece which uses the parable of a bankrupt American town to comment on the narcissism of power-hungry people. Sondheim himself referred to it as being somewhat cartoonish, and some of the songs are considerably stronger than others. One strength, however, is that it leaves space in the show for an ensemble cast to make a real impression. In this production a strong dancing element diversifies the tone of the show and frequently gives it a needed burst of energy. However, as the plot which underpins the music verges on the ludicrous it ultimately leads to a slightly messy-looking show, even if cast and musicians deal well with transitions between tonally disparate scenes.
The design of the show is very effective, and includes some brilliant costume choices including a striking red suit number for the Mayoress, which encapsulates her caricatured greed perfectly. Played by Felicity Duncan, the character has a real stage presence. The lighting is used particularly effectively to draw out the colours of the characters and accentuate their status. The simple set is designed to be easily moved around and all its components are used purposefully. This allows the company to make as much as they can out of a relatively small space.
That said, it does seem ambitious to have twelve ensemble dancers on stage at the same time – particularly in some of the more complicated sequences, such as the tap piece. Holly Hughes’ ambitious choreography is, however, one of the show’s strongest aspects as it brings dynamism and a stylish edge. The choreography brings comedy to some of the scenes too, which is useful in distracting audiences from the weak plot. However, the ensemble cast as ‘cookies’ – the patients in the insane asylum – used physical tics to convey their insanity which is both slightly cheap and confusing, since it identifies the ‘cookies’ very simply and makes them seem too two-dimensional for what the plot implies about them.
A very touching relationship is felt between Nurse Apple and Hapgood’s characters, played by Rachel Delooze and Oliver Stanley. The rendition of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ is the most captivating scene between these characters, and is also the song most suited to Delooze’s performance. The love story between the pair grounds the piece in something other than the political, which does make up for the weakness of the show as an effective piece of satire.
The second act is particularly enjoyable and contains many of the show’s stronger numbers. Scenes in the second act also develops the central characters considerably. Though the egotism of the leaders appears to resonate with contemporary politics, the production’s real strength is not in this intellectual standpoint, but rather in the convincing and unusual love story it presents. The company rise to the challenge of the show well and have put on a fun piece. It certainly puts a spotlight on some much lesser known but worthy Sondheim music.
Anyone Can Whistle is showing at The Union Theatre until March 11.
Photo: Simon Purse