Anything Goes is back for a second joyful run at the Barbican, with a new headlining cast now featuring Bonnie Langford, Denis Lawson and Simon Callow. This happily goofy musical is steeped in vaudeville. It’s pure Cole Porter, and his love of funny lines and silly, surreal metaphors remains vibrant in this latest staging. PG Wodehouse wrote the original story, with Guy Bolton, and some of his wit can still be discerned despite the years and alterations.
What is missing from this production is the original’s scathing and topical wit. Check out some of its erstwhile lyrics (caveat – the daring and risqué, not the offensive ones!). Some of the lines are digs at the respectable yet deplorable, among others the descendants of wealthy robber barons such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts. Imagine that transposed to the present. Ironic allusions are gone, so is the political satire. In the title song, Wodehouse’s lines included “When in the House our Legislators are calling each other Traitors and So & So’s”. Such references to our era’s turmoil are absent from what is now an almost scrubbed clean text.
All that is a world away from this current gentle staging of Anything Goes. Coming out of hard times – those harsh 1930s – even if the bite is gone, at least the show’s joie de vivre – borne out of disenchantment – delivers: bouncing back wittily from bittersweet sorrows. It does this very well indeed, and irrepressibly.
Kerry Ellis’ performance as Reno Sweeney is a joy. Flawless in song and dance, and hitting just the right nuances in portraying a character who is forthright, a tomboy, yet also glamorous. It’s a performance that also reminds one of the powerful and independent female characters of the cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. When she gracefully relinquishes her hopes of the love of a younger man, one is reminded of the Countess in Der Rosenkavalier letting go.
Callow plays Elisha J Whitney, an ageing and amorous millionaire, who one can’t help but think resembles Rupert Murdoch. Yet he is an absolute delight. A great stage actor, he long-ago perfected comic absent-minded amiability, and it is a joy to see this played out so amusingly here.
One of the greatest, unexpected pleasures in this show is Carly Mercedes Dyer as Erma, the anarchic and lusty gangster’s moll. Hers is one of the smaller roles, but her performance just shoots off the stage like a rocket made of lemon sherbet. Her brief appearances are characterised by great comic timing, a strong stage presence and superb singing. It would be very interesting to see her cast as Reno Sweeney in a future version of this musical – likely she would be magnificent.
The costumes are exquisite, just eye-catching enough to allow enjoyment of the fashion and the cut of the fabrics without distracting the audience’s attention from the acting and dancing. The set has allure – it’s such fun and so beautifully designed, with an abundance of bolts, brass rails, and funnels. It all serves the action (brilliantly directed and choreographed by award-winning Kathleen Marshall) seamlessly.
A special mention for outstanding performance must go to a very particular cast member: a little leaping doggie who takes a dip… All hail indestructible Border Terriers!
The old adage once more comes true for everyone in this screwball musical comedy of mismatched desires and yearning for love and money: every pot find its lid. Toff, gangster, heiress, ageing millionaire or fiercely sassy moll, it all ends swimmingly for all – as anything goes.
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Original book by Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse revised by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
Direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall
Set Design Derek McLane
Costume Design Jon Morell
Music Supervision Stephen Ridley
Anything Goes plays at Barbican Theatre until 3 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.