Oh, Daniel Evans, you little balding bundle of Welsh genius – I’m not saying you were wasted in that snooker venue in Sheffield but you certainly deserve the widest of musical stages for your work: Anything Goes is a musical theatre buff’s musical, crammed to the gunwales with talent and invention.

The plot’s irrelevant, and even tidying the script hasn’t make it make sense, so the need-to-know is that it’s a caper on a cruise liner in which two pairs of lovers change partners and dance and lots of people pretend to be lots of things they’re not including priests, murderers, Chinese, and heterosexual sailors.

Anything Goes was the first and best of five shows Cole Porter wrote for Ethel Merman, and, in 1934, as an antidote to the great depression. 80 years later this ambitious national tour spends its nine months in the run up to the General Election and whatever then follows, so you could argue that we still need our minds taking off the situation. And what an escape it is, I defy anyone to sit through a performance and still be worrying about what’s on his or her ‘to do’ list.

It is a massive Porter songfest – ‘I Get a Kick out of You’, is the first number, almost thrown away while the audience is still rattling its Maltesers, with ‘You’re The Top’ and ‘It’s De-Lovely’ still to come before the climactic title song ending the first half and demanding an ovation – after which it’s pretty much a relentless wave of production numbers in Act 2 with ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’ threating to raise the roof.

But what Evans has done is to graft complex choreographic narrative, brilliantly devised by Alastair David, onto almost all the songs – he makes each one a separate three act drama, with unconventional patterns from random scrums to suggestive posing to synchronized swimming, and the energetic company just never lets up whether it’s swing, tap or martial arts.

It’s hard to lay Merman’s ghost – neither Elaine Paige nor Patti LuPone quite managed it in London and Broadway revivals, but the casting of Debbie Kurup will both confirm her leading lady status and make you forget Ethel ever blew Gabriel, so to speak. Kurup is a definitive, stamping each number with her personality and dazzling the audience with her smile. And Merman never rocked a scarlet lurex basque.  Apart from Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie, I can’t recall an audience so thoroughly hailing a new star.

Who else is good? Everyone. And with some surprises – Hugh Sachs plays the unconvincing ‘Public Enemy number 13’ with lugubrious charm and, although I’m fairly sure that in his Benidorm karaoke episode he struggled to sing convincingly, puts over ‘Be Like The Bluebird’ with chubby panache. Alex Young has more fun than is decent with the sailors in ‘Buddy, Beware’ and as a repressed Bertie Woosterish lordling who finally breaks out, Stephen Matthews – like Alec Guinness on acid – steals not just the scene but the curtains, the chandelier and the cherubs from the front of the circle with his outrageously funny ‘Gypsy in Me’.

The always-excellent Matt Rawle plays the principal love interest and his high tenor is distinctive and suits his ballads beautifully, but he didn’t look entirely well on press night and he has two understudies I’d seen in their last year at Arts Ed – Dylan Mason had just the right sort of charm in ‘The Music Man’ to play Billy Crocker and Adam Rhys-Charles may be an even better dancer. Stay well, but watch your back, Matt.

Cole Porter and I share a birthday.  If there’s anything in horoscopes, I’d say he’d be thrilled with this production.

 

 

@paulinlondon and I made an AudioBoom recording our impressions straight out of the theatre.  Listen here.