Lloyd Evans

I can’t recommend this Cole Porter musical highly enough: Anything Goes, at the Barbican, reviewed

Kerry Ellis is a knockout singer and dancer in the lead role and Simon Callow is heartbreakingly funny

I can't recommend this Cole Porter musical highly enough: Anything Goes, at the Barbican, reviewed
Kerry Ellis, centre, is a knockout in the lead role in Anything Goes at the Barbican. Credit: Marc Brenner
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Anything Goes

Barbican Theatre, until 3 September

Hand of God

Hope Theatre

The Barbican’s big summer show is billed on the website as ‘the sold-out musical sensation, Anything Goes’. The term ‘sold-out’ is a strange way to describe a production that’s keen to get your business. You’d be forgiven for clicking away and hunting for a show with seats available. What the Barbican means is that this is a revival of an earlier production that did great business. And that may explain why tickets aplenty are available even on a busy Friday night. This version stars Kerry Ellis as the showgirl, Reno, who falls in love on a transatlantic cruise ship. Virtually every number is a classic. If you read any couplet from the title song you’ll be humming the melody all day.

‘In olden days a glimpse of stocking/ Was looked on as something shocking/ But now God knows …’

Cole Porter was one of the few composers who wrote the lyrics and the music for his shows, and he enjoyed mocking his rivals Rodgers and Hammerstein: ‘It takes two people to write a musical?’ Several hands contributed to the book, including P.G. Wodehouse, whose influence is clearly visible. The characters are clownish grotesques with simple, child-like natures. And the storytelling is brilliant. Each figure in the narrative has a clear dramatic goal which is easy for us to see but hard for the character to achieve. And it’s fun because the focus is on archetypal human eccentricities: the greed of impoverished widows; the preposterous theatricality of gangsters; the sad yearnings of lonely millionaires; the charming buffoonery of English aristocrats.

The story centres on Crocker, a handsome stowaway, who wants to seduce a society girl, Hope, despite her betrothal to a daft British toff, Lord Evelyn. His lordship takes a shine to Reno who herself has the hots for Crocker. It’s the standard love triangle. And though the show is 88 years old, it feels as fresh as a punnet of picked-this-morning strawberries.

Crocker has to avoid his wealthy boss so he disguises himself as a criminal by befriending a real hoodlum, Moonface Martin, who wears the costume of a respectable priest. These impersonations deliver great satirical effects as the script highlights the weird alliance between the press and the police who sensationalise crime by publishing a top-ten list of America’s ‘most wanted men’, as if lawbreaking were a glamorous vocation. When Crocker is mistaken for a leading gangster he finds the first-class passengers fawning over him. And he gets invited to the captain’s table. But as soon as he’s exposed as an honest citizen, he’s dropped by his rich admirers and sent below decks to be clapped in irons. The show is full of these deft narrative inversions and surprises, like a collection of classic short stories.

Kerry Ellis is a knockout as a singer and a dancer in the lead role. Simon Callow does a heartbreakingly funny turn as the lovesick old booby, Elisha J. Whitney. Denis Lawson (Moonface Martin) delivers a masterclass in subtle, quicksilver comedy and Samuel Edwards, as the heart-throb Crocker, has an amazingly silly side to his talent. It’s difficult to recommend this show highly enough. If you don’t have an anniversary to celebrate, invent one.

Hand of God focuses on lower-league football in the Birmingham area. Kieron, the narrator, is a keen player who has issues with his unemployed father. The acoustics of the show are uncomfortable to experience. Kieron (played by the writer, Sam Butters) yells his lines through a microphone, and he’s joined on stage by a DJ with a second mike who honks out commentaries on the games. Dance tunes are played non-stop as well. The sonic assault is excessive in a small venue like this. Amplifying the human voice robs it of warmth and intimacy, and it should be used as a last resort, not as a first option. Adding to the din is a technician who blows shrill blasts through a referee’s whistle.

The beautiful game gets a real kicking in this play. The culture of amateur league football appears to be mean, aggressive and hyper-masculine. And there are drugs everywhere. Pedlars join the teams to find customers rather than to play sport or keep fit. For Kieron, football is the glue that keeps him close to his dad who supports ‘the Baggies’ (West Brom), but their relationship is rotten to the core. Dad is a drunken thug who consumes lager all day and thrashes his son with a belt. And yet poor bullied Kieron hails him as ‘the premier league of fathers’.

He sounds brainwashed. The message seems to be that emotionally stunted lads like Kieron should stop watching football with their abusive fathers and find themselves a girlfriend. And where’s his mum? There are no females in this show. It’s worse than the Garrick. Even there, women get visiting rights.