The rarely performed Sondheim musical Anyone Can Whistle is currently playing at the Union Theatre in Southwark. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, it first premiered in 1964 but notoriously flopped on Broadway.
Set in a small town, the show tells of how the corrupt officials hatch a plan to bring tourists in by faking a religious miracle. Things go well until a nurse from a local mental hospital – known as the “cookie jar” – brings along her patients – “cookies” – so that they can be healed. Knowing that letting them take the cure will reveal their plot, the mayor refuses, so Nurse Apple (the hugely talented Rachel Delooze) releases the lot into the crowd. Then ensues a series of lively attempts to discover which are mad and which are sane: “assisted” by the entrance of the new hospital assistant, Hapgood (an excellent Oliver Stanley).
While I found the portrayal of the “cookies” to be problematic to say the least, I did think that the basic point of not knowing which of the townspeople were sane and which were not was an interesting one, and led to many humorous moments. The socio-political satire involving town mayor Cora Hoover Hooper (Felicity Duncan) and her disreputable associates is knowing and well-placed and the love story between Fay Apple and Hapgood adds tension.
I liked the music more than I had expected to: the title song is a heartfelt plea for doing things that scare you, ‘Come Play Wiz Me’ is playful and memorable, and songs including ‘Me and My Town’ are toe-tappingly catchy, accentuated by some very strong choreography.
I definitely recommend this show for fans of Sondheim: non-fans might be a bit bewildered, but then again, perhaps the strong music and superb cast could win them over.