Finisterre, the sixth studio album by English pop group Saint Etienne, features a series of spoken word interludes from actor Michael Jayston. ‘Rock could be so good’, he solemnly intones, ‘but we make it all so rubbishy.’ It’s hard to disagree. I’ve always hated rock music; my idea of hell is being handcuffed to a chair at a Judas Priest tribute night. Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley is probably of a similar mindset. He’s a man who wears his pop credentials lightly, but his musical erudition is front and centre in two immaculately researched books, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’, and the newly published ‘Let’s Do It’, which traces the roots of pop from the turn of the last century to the nineteen fifties, encompassing rag time, tin pan alley, and the great American songbook.
The title of this 600 page tome comes from one of Cole Porter’s best known songs (‘And that’s why birds do it, bees do it/Even educated fleas do it/Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.’) A man who bestrides the songbook landscape like a modern day immortal (and features prominently in Stanley’s book), Porter was at his most productive during the 20’s and 30’s. But his ability to marry sophisticated melody with smart lyrics means his work has never really gone out of fashion: In the early 90’s, the ‘Red Hot and Blue’ album featured covers by artists like Neneh Cherry, Sinead O’Connor, David Byrne and Aztec Camera. More recently, the movie De-Lovely saw Robbie Williams, Elvis Costello and Alanis Morissette picking up the Porter baton.
This brings us to the jewel in Porter’s top heavy crown, the stage musical Anything Goes. The original Broadway production premiered in 1934, at the time of the American depression. Gifted director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who first directed a revival in 2011, has an instinctive feel for this material, and recognizes it’s a show about escapism, as much as anything else. If it isn’t broke etc.
A group of mismatched passengers are travelling across the Atlantic from London to New York: there’s cynical nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Kerry Ellis); medium profile gangster Moonface Martin (Denis Lawson), and his flighty moll Erma (the hilarious Carly Mercedes Dyer); absent minded American financier Elisha Whitney (Simon Callow); and beautiful debutante Hope Harcourt (Nicole-Lily Baisden), and her recently widowed mother Evangeline (a daffy Bonnie Langford).
PG Wodehouse was one of four writers who co-authored the original book, here given a slick polish from John Weidman and Timothy Crouse. In the tradition of the great screwball comedies, the plot mostly revolves around disguises, farcical situations, and mistaken identities, the action taking place on the deck, and in the bars and cabins of Derek McLane’s opulent, split level ocean liner set (who wouldn’t want to spend a night in one of those art deco bedrooms?) Naturally, there’s plenty of whip-smart dialogue. ‘I’m in love!’ cries chiselled romantic lead Billy Crocker (Samuel Edwards). ‘I’m in Cabin 13!’ replies Reno. Only it’s Hope he’s in love with, not Reno. Hope, meanwhile, is in love – or maybe just thinks she is – with English toff Lord Evelyn Oakley (coincidentally played by Haydn Oakley). Naturally, it all works out in the end.
I’ve liked Denis Lawson ever since he appeared in the muddled but intriguing BBC thriller Dead Head. That show featured a bravura appearance from Simon Callow, and it’s nice to see the pair together again. Neither are natural singers but they’re mostly here to provide comic relief, which they deliver in spades. Triple threat Kerry Ellis hasn’t done a great deal of television but to West End audiences she’s blue blood royalty, thanks to stellar turns in Wicked and We Will Rock You (she has a long term recording relationship with Brian May of Queen). Possessing atomic levels of charisma, Ellis threatens to send Anything Goes into orbit during the big song and dance numbers (it’s hard to believe, early in her career, she auditioned to appear on TV’s The Voice).
There isn’t space to mention all the dancers but respect to the quartet of ‘Angels’, Chastity, Purity, Charity, and Virtue (Alexandra Wright, Selina Hamilton, Billie-Kay, and Jessica Buckby). Naturally flattered by Jon Morrell’s sumptuous costumes – they look like they’re going to an Eyes Wide Shut party during the ‘Blow Gabriel, Blow’ number – all four are smooth, effortlessly elegant dancers.
There are some magical sequences but the highpoint has to be the title number (‘Times have changed/And we’ve rewound the clock/Since the Puritans got a shock/When they landed on Plymouth Rock.’) The sound of audience jaws hitting the floor almost drowns out the orchestra, as director Marshall takes the entire company through a dizzying ten minute routine featuring some of the most phenomenal movement and dancing I’ve ever seen on stage. It’s worth seeing the show for this scene alone, a theatrical feat that could be endlessly analysed in theatre school, and a blueprint for budding choreographers who want to dream big.
Put simply, there aren’t enough superlatives to do Anything Goes justice. Classy – like a glass of Armand de Brignac Champagne. Exhilerating – like a plunge in Wim Hof’s Jacuzzi.
Anything Goes is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester from 9 to 18 June before returning to London.
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