Samuel Edwards

Anything Goes

11/05/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Until tonight, I’m only aware of Anything Goes as the ‘rubbish’ musical that drama teacher Mr G bins off when he’s left in charge of the school play in Summer Heights High – in order to replace it with a highly questionable self-penned piece (Mr G is not a reliable barometer). Of course, I have gleaned a few clues from the poster (definitely nautical) and from Bonnie Langford’s billing (all-singing, all-dancing), although Simon Callow’s presence is more of a puzzle. And, sadly, Simon Callow isn’t present tonight, so I never get to solve that particular enigma. Still, his understudy, Clive Heyward, puts in an excellent turn as boozy gazillionaire Elisha Whitney, truly owning the role.

Anything Goes, it turns out, is exactly the sort of old-fashioned glitz-and-glamour musical I like the best, with lots of big, bold choreography, and a galumphing Cole Porter score. Of course, the story is nonsensical and ridiculously contrived, but it hardly matters: the plot is just a vehicle for the performances.

Reno Sweeney (Kerry Ellis) is a nightclub singer/evangelist, booked to entertain passengers on luxury ocean liner, the SS American. She is infatuated with Whitney’s assistant, Billy (Samuel Edwards), but he’s hopelessly in love with debutante Hope (Nicole-Lily Baisden). Hope loves him too, but she’s betrothed to bumbling English toff, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (played by the aptly named Haydn Oakley, presumably no relation). Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt (Langford), won’t allow her to call off the engagement, because Evelyn is rich, and the Harcourts are on their uppers. Throw in a couple of gangsters called Moonface and Erma (Denis Lawson and Carly Mercedes Dyer), put ’em all on the ship, and let the mayhem begin…

Reno is a demanding role, but Ellis is a prime example of a ‘triple threat’ – not only imbuing the evangelist with spark and charm, but also showcasing her impressive singing voice – all while hoofing it up with the best of them in some very peppy dance routines. She’s perfectly cast. Oakley is also delightfully amiable as Evelyn, effortlessly winning our sympathy. Co-book-writer PG Wodehouse’s imprint is all over this character, and Oakley makes the most of the opportunity to Bertie Wooster his way through the tale. Mercedes Dyer is another standout, dazzling both ship’s crew and audience alike with her sassy attitude.

The set (by Derek McClane) is pretty awe-inspiring, with a joyful nautical aesthetic and a real sense of scale: the ship feels vast and imposing.

But really, this is all about the big numbers, and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall has pulled out all the stops. The ensemble cast is huge, and there is a palpable sense of a busy ocean liner, bursting with energy. It’s an unabashed celebration of theatricality, and I am absolutely spellbound by the extended version of the title song that ends the first act: the tap dancing is sublime. The second act quickly leads to another high, the fabulous Blow, Gabriel, Blow: it’s a real spectacle.

There’s nothing deep and meaningful to ponder here – except perhaps the strange nature of what constitutes “celebrity” – but that’s really not the point. If you’re after a bit of pure distraction, with some effortlessly glorious song and dance, then Anything Goes certainly fits the bill. Don’t listen to Mr G!

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield