Anyone Can Whistle: the Sondheim flop whose signal moment in the original 1964 production was when a dancer fell into the orchestra pit, inadvertently killing the saxophonist. Another actor had a fatal heart attack during rehearsals, and in the tryout in Philadelphia the leading man, who was drinking heavily, made obscene gestures at an audience member leaving mid-show. Back in New York, book writer and director Arthur Laurents rowed constantly with leading lady Angela Lansbury, making her musical theatre debut, and had a fist-fight with the producer over deferring opening night. They didn’t, and it ran nine performances.

All of which tells you that the dramas surrounding the making of the show might yield a far better musical than the show itself if Mel Brooks hadn’t already written The Producers. It is strictly for serious Sondheim fans anxious to spot the seeds of future musical brilliance particularly in Assassins and Follies, but serves also to highlight the schizophrenic nature of Sondheim’s work – dividing between tuneful and witty, and discordant and odd.

This is definitely out of his ‘odd’ box: in a small bankrupt American township, an ambitious woman mayor, her financial controller, the chief of police and the local judge cook up a fake miracle to attract tourist dollars, hampered by issues with a mental asylum known as ‘The Cookie Jar’ whose inmates get mingled with their townsfolk.

Although it’s awkward to watch mental illness depicted as first-year drama student gibbering and twitching, choreographer Holly Hughes moves the twelve ensemble and seven cast energetically around the spaces, with elegant and dynamic ballet improvisations and a zany tap number for ‘I’ve Got You to Lean On’ which in a way really suits the craziness of the show. The young ensemble members, almost all straight out of drama school or in a second job work strenuously with terrific commitment. Hard to spot names to watch, but dancers Alessandro Lubrano and Tom Mussell both shine.

When Anyone Can Whistle played at The Bridewell in 2003 (with Paula Wilcox and Janie Dee) reviewers said it was clearly a reference to Bill Clinton’s corruption and deception. You can guess who’s referenced in the programme in Phil Wilmott’s 2017 version, yet there’s no attempt in his production to play for topical political satire or deliver anything other than a straightforward and starless staging. With an almost bare set and a chorus dressed in drab dungarees, there’s little distraction from the hopeless mismatch of book to score.

The subplot is an earnest romance between mental nurse Fay Apple played by Rachel Delooze and a shy prospective doctor (Oliver Stanley) which doesn’t really have fireworks although Stanley is undoubtedly the best thing in the show – together, although only Delooze sings it, they have the title song which she delivers beautifully as a rueful and reflective ballad that could well contain Sondheim’s own feelings:

What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free

 

Or, come to think of it, mine.

 

Until 11 March.

 

Footnote: even on a bitterly cold February night, the auditorium is still airless and unbearably hot.  It’s ridiculous that in a newly-built space the engineers can’t rectify this.