31st December 2016, matinée
It wasn’t a difficult decision for us to go and see ‘Anything Goes’ at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. This is a musical we hadn’t seen before, and after their fantastic version of Singin’ in the Rain which we saw two years ago, we were eager to see another musical classic get the UATG treatment.
We are very familiar with Cole Porter’s Music, or at least the 2002 National Theatre cast recording; by extension we were vaguely familiar with the characters, but with no idea at all what the plot was. It turns out that really doesn’t matter – it is not so much a plot as a song delivery system – and what songs! Most musicals have a couple of showstoppers and some nice tunes, but here we were reminded of the prolific talent of Porter, penning both music and lyrics for a cornucopia of hits including the title song, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘I Get Kick out of you’, ‘De-Lovely’, ‘Friendship’ and ‘Let’s Misbehave’. OK, so one of those was recycled, but you can hardly begrudge him that!
The plot revolves around two old friends, nightclub singer and part time evangelist Reno Sweeney and wall-street broker and chancer Billy Crocker, as they get into various hilarious scrapes and romantic entanglements on a voyage from New York to London.
So did they manage to pull off a second theatrical coup? Sadly, not this time. There seemed to be some key elements which were missing. The main plot involves Billy Crocker’s love of Hope Harcourt, a woman he has only met once before when he shared a taxi with her. He stows away on the ship in order to convince her to marry him and ditch her English fiance. It’s a common enough plot device, but there is little chemistry between them, and without that he comes across more as a stalker than a lover whose feelings are reciprocated, and the superficiality of the premise is cruelly exposed.
Then there is the traverse staging layout. We noted with Singin’ in the Rain, which had a similar layout, that they just about got away with it ‘by keeping the staging very simple and making the ends of the stage the main focus’. But in this case, perhaps because the action is more comedic and revolves around farce, and the dance numbers more ambitious in scale (it’s all relative), all the disadvantages of a traverse layout came to the fore. The most notable being that with the seats arranged on either side of a thin strip of stage area, even in a venue this small, one cannot even see all the action without getting ‘tennis neck’. And as we noted in our review of Victor/Victoria at the old Southwark Playhouse, traverse staging is not a good way to do farce, where the action needs to be clearly signposted and easy to follow. Although some of the dance duets worked very well, any more than three on stage suddenly felt like a very large crowd, and with choreography that was more suited to a large stage, the effect was magnified. Perhaps more scaled down choreography would have been more effective, but then, why start out with a stage layout that offers so many problems in the first place?
There were some positives, but before we go on to them there is one more element of the show which in our opinion was an unforgiveable ‘sin’. There does of course need to be some kind of silly pretext for resolving the situation so that the right couples can marry each other, that’s traditional. And perhaps in the 1930s it was also a tradition to laugh at racial stereotypes. But we couldn’t quite believe our eyes when Billy Crocker came on in a Chinese outfit and proceeded to impersonate a Chinese character with a cod Chinese accent in order to break up the marriage ceremony before revealing his true identity. Would this have been OK if he had blacked up and adopted a Jamaican or African accent? We think not. Yet for some reason there are still Directors out there who think this kind of ‘yellowface’ is OK.
But it was not all gloom and doom – there were some stand-out performances to savour. Taryn Erickson was brimming with confidence as Reno Sweeney from the moment she made her entrance, and walked a nice line throughout between world-weariness and unabashed optimism. She had a captivating stage presence and gave a strong vocal performance too, ably supported by her ‘angels’ Lucie Horsfall and Chloe Porter. As Evelyn Oakleigh, Jack Keane gave an assured performance which belied his very recent graduation from Drama School. Extracting every possible opportunity for humour, particularly physical comedy, he had an impressive command of the stage, and pulled off the unexpected feat of making the ‘stuffy’ Englishman a rather attractive proposition through his relentless eccentricity. David Pendlebury nicely captured the humour of Moonface Martin’s situation as a gangster well out of his comfort zone. We loved Samantha Dorsey’s pure singing voice which was used to good effect in the soaring ‘De-Lovely’ and ‘All Through the Night’, although we would question whether she was the right character to sing ‘I Get A Kick out of you’, which is normally given to Reno Sweeney. Finally the band, under Musical Director and Orchestrator Dan Glover, deserve a big shout-out for recreating the richness and glamour of Porter’s music in a small space with only six musicians.