Anyone Can Whistle @ Jermyn Street Theatre, London

cast list
Issy van Randwyck, Alistair Robins, Leo Andrew, Karl Moffatt, Nick Trumble, Rosalie Craig, Sophie Jug, Richard Colvin, Lloyd Gorman, Deborah Hewitt, Elizabeth Reid, Rhiannon Sommers, Jessica Adair/Martha Tipper, David Ricardo-Pearce

directed by
Tom Littler

musical direction by
Tom Attwood
In case you hadn’t noticed, this year sees the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim and we’re in for a slew of celebrations over the coming months.

If not starting at the very beginning, things kick off with a revival of the composer’s early Arthur Laurents collaboration Anyone Can Whistle at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

At what point does a work reputed to be “ahead of its time” slip into datedness without ever having arrived? The show famously opened and closed in nine days in 1964 and Tom Littler’s production gives us some clues as to why it’s never had a full West End staging or an enduring run anywhere.

Sondheim has always been accused of trying to be clever, and he usually is, but here he’s stuck in the goo, in a stew, dramaturgically-speaking. It’s all very heavy-handed, emphasised by Littler’s production, which seeks to draw the strongest possible parallels with what was starting to happen in Germany at the time of the depression-hit setting.

In a backwoods small-town, a corrupt bureaucracy invents a “miracle” to stave off bankruptcy. It is then whirled into confusion by an anarchist agitator who, posing as a doctor, jumbles up lunatics (quaintly referred to as Cookies from the Cookie Jar) and ordinary folk. Everything’s topsy-turvy, people play symbols and symbols play symbols, leaving the audience as baffled as most of the characters.

Clarity of storytelling isn’t a factor (although Littler worked on Trevor Nunn’s crystalline A Little Night Music, little seems to have rubbed off in this respect). The pocket-sized stage fair bulges with frantic activity. It’s a good rule for fringe companies with tiny budgets to cut the trappings and focus on the action. Art is much more interesting when abstract rather than when trying to be representational with insufficient means.

A talented bunch of actor-musicians work hard to put across Sondheim’s dazzling lyrics and memorable tunes (the title song, “Everybody Says Don’t” and “There Won’t Be Trumpets” are all familiar from Side by Side by Sondheim and there’s plenty else beside).

Sondheim completists may have to await the outcome of next month’s off-Broadway series of concerts to see if, stripped down and musically-focused, Anyone Can Whistle is anything more than a collection of great songs.

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