If you’ve followed the first part of our annual post-Christmas Sheffield shindig, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lady Duncansby and her butler William enjoyed a riotous afternoon of panto comedy with Dick Whittington. After hotel check-in, a brief nap and woofing down a Café Rouge Salad Paysanne and Coupe Rouge, it was time to return to the Crucible to see Daniel Evans’ production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. About ten years ago, Mrs C and I took the Dowager Mrs C to see Trevor Nunn’s version at Drury Lane. I think she quite enjoyed it – I think we both found it a trifle dull. In many respects, it’s the kind of musical I usually don’t like much – lots of set pieces, very slight story, a stop-starty structure; designed to be entertaining for its two and a half hours duration, then disappearing into the ether once it’s over – pure stage candy floss. I like my musicals to have a bit more oomph, some depth, and some tragedy mixed in with the comedy.
In a nutshell, Anything Goes is the simple tale of person a) being in love with b) but b) is engaged to c) and d) quite fancies a) too. A)’s boss e) is travelling to England on board the SS American but so are b) and c) and even though a) might well lose his job over it, he doesn’t get off the ship so that he can tell b) how much he loves her. Meanwhile f) and g) are on the run from the law and the whole lot of them end up on board ship; and 165 minutes later, they all live happily ever after. Not a lot to it really. To be fair, there is a fascinating sub-theme running through the show regarding the cult of celebrity – which is here seen as very amoral. When a) is suspected of being Snake-Eyes Johnson (Public Enemy No 1), rather than be terrified of him or want him captured and taken off the ship, the passengers all want his autograph and he gets to sit on the Captain’s Table. But when he is revealed as just simple a), he goes from hero to zero in a split-second. Apart from that, it’s a plot as slim as Mr Creosote’s wafer-thin mint.
The thing is, Cole Porter knew how to write a choon. Depending on your definitions (and taste), this show contains at least six show-stoppers, five of them before the interval, which makes for a slight sense of imbalance. I Get A Kick Out Of You was one the first Cole Porter songs I loved – and that was because of Gary Shearston’s moody 1974 pop single, remember that? It’s the first song you hear in Anything Goes and it never feels to me like a show-opener, because it’s too mid-tempo, too I’ve considered the situation and this is the position I’ve arrived at and not enough opening gambit. But it’s a terrific song. Actually, I’m not really sure if any of the songs have that much connection with their alleged role in the show, they’re much more like individual celebrations of song-and-danciness. You could pick them up and plonk them down anywhere you like and they’d still work. And that’s actually what has happened. A number of them were originally in other Porter musicals – for example, Friendship was written for DuBarry Was A Lady, and It’s De-Lovely for Red, Hot and Blue – they’re generic musical numbers that can slot in anywhere. It’s no wonder you just get that slight feeling that the actual show structure is somehow compromised.
I may be giving you the impression that I didn’t enjoy this show very much, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an outstanding production. It all looks and sounds so ravishing that no one could be immune to its charms. The cast play their parts with such verve and gusto that you get carried along on a sea of delight that masks any weaknesses in the plot.
Richard Kent’s design is awash with primary colours and both Mrs C and I admired the very clever curve of the flooring upwards at the back of the stage to suggest the length of the ship carrying on way into the distance. Then there’s Alastair David’s choreography. Once again he has come up trumps with some incredible set pieces, just like he did with My Fair Lady and Oliver! The extended tap-dancing sequence to accompany the title song just before the interval is simply superb. It brings out the best in the ensemble boys and girls – extraordinarily good throughout the show – and it’s one of those theatrical moments that just lifts you to a new high; their energy transfers to the audience and fills you with more sweetness than any air freshener.
The whole cast are uniformly excellent. I’ve not seen Debbie Kurup before – she plays Reno Sweeney (d if you’re following the synopsis in paragraph 2), the nightclub singer who gets caught up with all sorts of shenanigans assisting her pal Billy (a) and ends up marrying posh nobility in the form of Evelyn (c). She is a fantastic entertainer. Terrific stage presence, wonderful voice, great dancer and incredibly watchable. Surely she will become a big star one day. I particularly loved her spirited rendition of Blow Gabriel Blow, another song you could more or less scoop up from any lesser show and plant as a show-stopper wherever you like. Matt Rawle plays Billy Crocker, the young Wall Street broker in love with Hope Harcourt (b) – he’s also a very talented musical performer whom we really enjoyed as Che in Evita; he glides effortlessly through this role, pattering his way expertly through You’re The Top and It’s De-Lovely.
Zoe Rainey – excellent in the Royal and Derngate’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 2013 – makes for a stylish, emotional Hope, making the best of her engagement to Evelyn and attempting to parry the ripostes of her mother Evangeline, played by Jane Wymark, on splendid form as usual. Then there are three very funny chaps: Stephen Matthews is a brilliant Evelyn – the epitome of the show’s Wodehousian origins (P. G. co-wrote the original book) – his great comic timing working wonders with the song The Gypsy in Me (which was originally sung by Hope – see how the songs just get criss-crossed or mixed and matched). Simon Rouse gives good bluster as Elisha Whitney (e – hope you’re keeping up) with some nice physical comedy when he gets his glasses nicked and holds out hope for a passionate experience with Evangeline. And Hugh Sachs gives a thoughtfully understated comic performance as Moonface Martin, Public Enemy No 13 and (f).
We loved Alex Young as Erma (g) – a real gutsy performance, full of fun. She really shines in this kind of role, just as she did in High Society a couple of years back. She’s obviously made for Cole Porter. And there’s another fantastic performance from Bob Harms as the Captain (we saw him in Pippin when he was understudying Matt Rawle and he was sensational) – a great song and dance man with a terrific feeling for the comedy. If you’re old enough to remember Edward Mulhare in The Ghost and Mrs Muir, I’m sure that’s the look he was trying to achieve.
Enormous fun, performed with panache and flair throughout, this is has sure-fire winner written all the way through it like a stick of rock. After it leaves Sheffield the SS American is embarking on an extensive UK tour till October 2015. For sheer enjoyment this is hard to beat – I predict a lot of happy theatregoers this year!