Anyone Can Whistle review: 'Sondheim revival is a sharp, side-splitting, subversive delight'

Sondheim's 1964 musical remains a hot mess, but one that now wears its absurdities on its sleeve.


Words: Simon Button; Photography: Danny With a Camera

The first London staging of a Sondheim show since the maestro’s death last November might seem like a curious choice. Anyone Can Whistle, after all, is one of his least-revived, except occasionally in concert form.

Plot-wise it’s also one of Sondheim’s strangest, set as it is in a fictional town where the only flourishing business is the Cookie Jar asylum and to stave off bankruptcy the mayoress decides to fake a miracle to bring in tourists - claiming that a spring, sprung from a rock after a baby licks it, has healing powers.

Amidst all the brouhaha the cookies from the Jar escape into the community, there’s a new kid in town who everyone thinks is a doctor when he’s actually an inmate, and a disgruntled nurse pretends to be a Lady from Lourdes in a bid to expose the fraudulent miracle.

Crazy, right? Sondheim himself said that Anyone Can Whistle’s attempt at sociopolitical satire, way ahead of its time when it opened and promptly closed in 1964, was a failure that only he and book writer Arthur Laurents could be blamed for.

Alex Young and Danny Lane Photography: Danny With A Camera

But nearly six decades later this musical meditation on sanity versus insanity is a subversive delight that gets a sharp, side-splitting revival at Southwark Playhouse. Director Georgie Rankcom embraces its absurdity and ratchets up the camp, aided by a batshit crazy performance by Alex Young as the small-town mayoress with the world’s biggest ego.

A demented diva in high heels and a pink and blue power suit, she’s like a terribly posh Mrs Overall mixed with Pee-wee Herman, Margaret Thatcher and Edina Monsoon, singing her hellos and opera-belting her commands. Young is a comic whirligig who has no filter and, dressed at one point in unflatteringly tight workout clobber, no shame.

The show could easily lag whenever this attention-seeking megalomaniac isn’t on the narrow walkway that consitutes the stage, but the rest of the cast are equally vivid even when the so-called story meanders into incoherence.

Jordan Broatch (right) and Chrystine Symone Photography: Danny With a Camera

One of several cast members who identify in the programme as non-binary, Jordan Broatch in their professional debut makes a bright and engaging J. Bowden Hapgood - the newcomer in town who sings the praises of non-conformity. As his love interest Nurse Faye Apple, who seems capable of anything except whistling, Chrystine Symone has a fantastic voice and a hilarious French accent.

Decked out in eye-popping pastels, the ensemble come in all sizes, shapes, creeds and colours, proving Hapgood’s point that ordinary is overrated. And there’s nothing ordinary about Sondheim’s score, which includes such gems as ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’, ‘With So Little to Be Sure Of’ and the lovely title song.

The show itself is still a hot mess but one that now wears its absurdities on its sleeve. Sondheim, I reckon, would be thrilled by this revival. 

Rating: 5/5

Anyone Can Whistle is at Southwark Playhouse until 7 May. For more information visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk and for great deals on tickets and shows click here.