Anyone Can Whistle was a flop when it first opened on Broadway in 1964, closing after just nine performances. The first major production of a Sondheim show since the composer’s death is Southwark Playhouse’s bold revival of this elusive work – from our experience it’s not difficult to see why it wasn’t a success first time around. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Sondheim’s score – far from his finest collection of songs, but ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ and ‘There Won’t Be Trumpets’ are both excellent – the issue lies with Arthur Laurents’ baffling and sometimes problematic book.

This political satire follows the story of corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, who doesn’t care for running the town well as long as she remains popular. When the financial situation deteriorates, she and her cronies conspire to fake a miracle – a rock which produces water with curative powers – in order to attract visitors and bring in some tourism revenue. However, when 49 people rock up from local mental asylum The Cookie Jar, the ruling elite panic that their ‘miracle’ will be exposed as a fraud, if these people drink the water and are not cured. The ‘Cookies’ from The Cookie Jar start to mingle with the townsfolk and suddenly no-one knows who’s who. This is just the beginning of the show – it’s all a bit complicated and convoluted.

The text uses some – we’re putting this politely – dated language when referring to those in the mental asylum. Something this revival does quite well is reframing the asylum – there’s clearly a number of LGBTQ+ nods in this production, and many of the cast identify as non-binary; The Cookie Jar has now become a place for people who refuse to conform to society, which is a neat touch.

However, that doesn’t save Anyone Can Whistle from being just a bit too absurd and complex – the source material remains largely intact and it’s just not all that enjoyable to watch. Additionally we weren’t sold on some of the production decisions – the musical is performed on a traverse stage, which is actually just a very thin strip of staging akin to a catwalk. It mostly just about works, but it didn’t feel like a natural fit. The band is visible above the stage, and while their performances are good, they’re also very loud, frequently drowning out the singers on press night.

We were impressed with Alex Young as the mayoress, who is gleefully corrupt in her role, and absolutely nails comic timing. There weren’t any particularly weak links in the cast, but no one shone quite as brightly as she did. Unfortunately, one excellent performance, a couple of decent tunes and some smart updating can’t save what is at its heart just not a particularly entertaining show to watch. We’re sure Sondheim completionists will enjoy the opportunity to see this rarely-performed work on the London stage – but we feel it’s probably one for the fans only.

GAY TIMES gives Anyone Can Whistle – 3/5

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