(New Wimbledon Theatre, January-February 2015)
Reno (Debbie Kurup) loves Billy (Matt Rawle). They’re old friends and he indulges her in a bantering kind of way but doesn’t take her seriously; because he loves Hope Harcourt (Zoë Rainey), the pretty débutante. But Hope is engaged to be married to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Stephen Matthews) and the happy couple are due to weigh anchor any moment on the SS American, which will carry them off to London for their glittering wedding at St Paul’s. Reno and her team of nightclub dancers are making the same voyage, bound for some London engagements; and it just so happens that Billy’s boss, Elisha Whitney, is also travelling on board. Realising that his beloved Hope will soon be out of his reach forever, Billy decides there’s only one thing for it: to pursue her.
He doesn’t have a ticket, but fortunately there’s one going begging: the moll Erma has been stood up by her man and Billy eagerly takes on the spare passport. Little does he know that, in so doing, he’s taking on the guise of the notorious gangster Snake Eyes Johnson (Public Enemy No. 1). With the guidance of Snake Eyes’s colleague, the hapless Moonface Martin (Public Enemy No. 13), Billy tries to come up with a way to win Hope’s heart and convince her to abandon the marriage to Lord Evelyn. But how can he do this without being spotted either by Mr Whitney or by Hope’s ambitious mother Evangeline (who coincidentally happens to be an old flame of Whitney’s)? And can he keep one step ahead of the captain, who’s desperately trying to track down the notorious criminal who’s apparently on his ship? Armed with cunning, audacity, Reno’s indulgent help, and a whole series of improbable disguises, Billy sets out to win the girl of his dreams.
Although this was the first time I’d seen Anything Goes, I knew that it was going to be an absolute treat: with music by Cole Porter and lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, how could it fail?! And it exceeded expectations: it was a sparkling farcical gem, a tongue-in-cheek delight for the eyes and ears, as sweet and insubstantial as candyfloss. I spent virtually the whole evening with a fatuous grin on my face because, despite all my recent efforts to learn about ‘serious’ music, I’m a simple soul at heart and there are few things more immediately delightful than a big flashy number with massed tap-dancing.
This production wasn’t on a large scale – the New Wimbledon Theatre is more modest in size than the West End houses and this was just one stop on a UK tour – but what it lacked in size it made up for in attention to detail. The set was full of Art Deco glamour, complete with a backdrop ingeniously designed to suggest an expanse of deck complete with railings, life jackets and a swimming pool. The costumes nodded to the date of the musical’s premiere in 1934, with a couple of romantic gowns for Hope (though nothing quite as fabulous as the dress from Top Hat), preppy jackets and baggy mobster suits for the men (and briefly a white tailcoat for Billy), and some exuberantly feathered and sequined nightclub outfits for Reno and her girls. It was all exuberantly, terrifically camp, and that’s even before I’ve got onto the troupe of tap-dancing sailors in snug, high-waisted bell-bottoms and striped tank-tops. But, oh my goodness, it was fun.
I only knew two of the songs in advance: the classic opener I Get A Kick Out Of You and the glorious Act 1 finale with the eponymous song Anything Goes, but almost every number fizzed with energy and wit. Of all the principals, Debbie Kurup impressed me most, though admittedly she had the advantage that Reno gets all the best tunes. Initially I wasn’t quite convinced by her voice but she swiftly got into her stride and then displayed a power and spark of humour that was perfect for belting out her songs. Stephen Matthews turned in a bit of a corker with Lord Evelyn’s unexpectedly swaggering number The Gypsy In Me, which was performed with such gusto that the audience was almost weeping with laughter. (As an aside, I enjoyed the whole thing even more because the audience was so responsive and appreciative: it made for a very warm and intimate atmosphere, quite different from the vast Central London theatres where I’ve seen musicals before.)
And the final plaudit must go to Alex Young, who gave a wonderful performance of Erma’s one solo number, Buddie, Beware, in which she plays off her harem of besotted sailors with flirtatious verve. Funnily enough the two romantic leads didn’t quite do it for me. It’s true that Hope doesn’t get any meaty numbers – her place is to look pretty and elegant and occasionally lovelorn – and although Zoë Rainey ticked all the boxes for the role, she struggled with the fact that Hope is fundamentally rather insipid next to the joyful frenzy of Reno and Erma. Matt Rawle, as Billy, had much broader scope for comedy and he pulled off the acting side of it very well, but both he and Rainey seemed to be stretched in some of their higher notes and Rawle’s accent wasn’t always as… shall we say… anchored as it could have been.
Nevertheless, this is a show that aims to entertain, pure and simple. The plot is very silly, the lyrics veer between the deliciously witty, the calculatedly daft and the nonsensical, and the finale is utterly implausible, but none of this matters ultimately. In the words of the show itself, it’s delightful, delicious, delectable, delirious, it’s de limit, deluxe, and thoroughly de-lovely. And the music’s infectious: as we walked back to the tube I was unable to resist singing random snatches of I Get A Kick Out Of You and occasionally trying – and failing – to tap-dance. My theatre buddy may well have despaired of me.