Anyone Can Whistle – Southwark Playhouse ★★★★

Sondheim’s problematic 1964 musical gets the largest staged production of the show since its Broadway debut – but has it finally found its moment?

When the Southwark Playhouse revival of Arthur Laurents’ and Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle was announced back in January, it was met with a mixture of excitement and some skepticism. Musical theatre fans and Sondheim completists were to get a rare opportunity to see a fully-staged production of the musical and previews unsurprisingly sold out.

However a questioned lingered in the air: how would this 2022 production deal with the problem at the core of the musical? Whilst Anyone Can Whistle boasts some top tier songs from the Sondheim canon, the book is notoriously so muddled to put it mildly, it has pretty much limited the show to concert performances only for the interim decades.

The plot essentially sees the Mayoress of a bankrupt backwater trying to turn around the town’s financial fortunes by faking a miracle to draw in tourists. The only townsperson to doubt the miracle is Nurse Fay Apple, who works at the local mental asylum – known colloquially as the “Cookie Jar”. This intended social satire sees the inmates (the ‘Cookies’) escape and overrun the town leading to a questioning of our notion of who is sane and who is ‘normal’. The original Broadway run played nine performances before closing.  

This production, opening 58 years and 1 day after the original, realises the problems of the book are essentially unsolvable and leans in heavily and with gusto to embracing the absurdist nature of the show. By playing it with almost childlike wonder and enthusiasm, the cast blunt the questionable and dated treatment of mental health. 

Arthur Laurents’ political satire about conformity lands few contemporary blows – aside from a perennial jibe about medical staff being overworked and underpaid. However, it’s in Anyone Can Whistle‘s focus on those considered ‘other’ in society that this production finds its modern foothold. An appropriately diverse ensemble playing both ‘cookies’ and pilgrims underscores the theme of cherishing individuality. 

Where this production begins to take flight is in the performances – none more so than Alex Young‘s irresistible take on Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (the role that gave Angela Lansbury her Broadway musical debut). When she is onstage, you cannot take your eyes off her. When she’s off-stage, the absence is felt. 

Mayoress Cora can often be too easily reduced to panto villain territory, but Young imbues her character with the centrifugal force of a charming narcissist in full flow. She is a camp and yet seductive antagonist – mercurial and flirtatious (not least when she found her way onto audience member and gorgeous former EastEnders actor Marc Elliott’s lap). Alex Young’s impeccable and inventive comedic skills fire off in all manner of unexpected directions in the crucible of Southwark Playhouse’s traverse staging. In a role that tempts a wildly OTT grotesque, Young deftly measures her character’s dementedness on a sliding scale so as never to become mere schtick. It’s a beguiling performance that should invite award nominations in the near future.

She is ably supported by Chrystine Symone as the good-natured, honest but conflicted Nurse Fay Apple. Amidst the vulnerability of the role, Symone threads her character with a compelling inner turmoil. And while there might not be trumpets or bolts of fire to accompany Jordan Broatch‘s arrival as J. Bowden Hapgood, they offer an unaffected charisma as the outsider who has an unsolicited role to play in the lives of the townspeople. The triumvirate of Samuel Clifford, Renan Teodoro and especially Danny Lane work beautifully as Mayoress Hoover’s corrupt coterie. As improper as it is to single out anyone from the ensemble, Shane Convery (looking uncannily like Annie Lennox in her Diva phase at times) has an exuberance and wit that marks them out for greater things to come.

Of course, where Anyone Can Whistle soars is in the glorious Sondheim standards – many of which have taken a spotlight far beyond this show. There Won’t Be Trumpets is a disarmingly direct showstopper, powerfully delivered in this production by the warm tones of Chrystine Symone. Similarly, she offers an emotive sincerity to the wistful title song.  A Parade In Town is satisfyingly rendered as a paean to an egotist’s self-worth with Alex Young ruthlessly exposing Cora’s base neediness while garnering the audience’s sympathy. Only Everybody Says Don’t fails to nail the emotional resonance expected of it, possibly because of the frenetic tempo that is imposed on Broatch that leaves them no space to fully land the lyrical content with impact.

How to evaluate this revival of a problematic Sondheim musical that still faces the fantastic score / terrible book dilemma that was present from Anyone Can Whistle‘s inception.

Some have dubbed Southwark Playhouse’s production as “bonkers” and “crazy” but that seems a lazy appraisal for what the 2022 cast have attempted. Bypassing the unsalvageable narrative and yet implicitly honouring the show’s themes, they have reframed this unwieldy and unsatisfying work as an entertaining parable that questions how idealism survives against the forces of capitalism and cynicism.

Even in the arena of miracles, resolving the book’s many issues was not something that this London revival could ever fully achieve. However, it’s hard to imagine any future production doing more to make this lesser-seen Sondheim an enjoyable evening out for audiences.

Ultimately, this Anyone Can Whistle is a wild fever-dream of stunning Sondheim songs, exuberant performances and a comic masterclass from Alex Young. It may not make sense but you won’t want to miss it either. 

There won’t be trumpets but there will be 4 stars from The Recs


Anyone Can Whistle is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 7 May.

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