In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but, heaven knows, Barnaby Eaton-Jones braved the risque anyway and reviewed a recent production of Anything Goes by The Cotswold Savoyards...
This is an Amateur Production.
I'm not a fan of the word 'amateur'. I always think it gives the wrong impression to an audience. But, because this show was put on by a company that's not paying wages, then you need that emblazoned on the publicity. If you've honed your craft over a number of years but you're only doing it as a hobby, you don't get to call yourself professional. Most amateur theatre companies I've come across strive to be professional. They're not intending to put on a show that's been thrown together at the last minute, with a bunch of people who've never set foot on a stage before. Adopting the American phrase of 'Community Theatre' should've been taken up by the 'amateur' UK companies years ago. These are the people who put their hearts and souls into something that wouldn't look out of place on a West End stage.
So, 'Anything Goes', by The Cotswold Savoyards, moved across town from their theatrical home at the gloriously decadent Playhouse (with 300 seats) to put on their annual show at the equally exquisite Everyman (800 seats). It's a society that has run in Cheltenham since 1962; originally formed to exclusively perform Gilbert & Sullivan. It's only in the last decade that they've branched out into less familiar territory for them but more familiar territory for modern-day audiences. After the success of 'Follies' – a complicated and intricate Sondheim musical – the company has gone in completely the opposite direction with 'Anything Goes'. The lightweight and uncomplicated screwball plot perfectly builds up to a climax, with the songs sitting comfortably on hooks that enhance the scenes rather than distract from them. It's a bit of a patchwork musical that was a success in 1934 and then, upon each revival, was altered and re-written and re-scored and re-jigged. The main creative forces behind the musical, who most people will recognise, are PG Wodehouse (who contributed to the script; writer of many a humorous novel, though most will know him from his creation of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster) and Cole Porter (who contributed the songs, not all of which appeared in the first version but – in subsequent versions – all had become famous in their own right and are easily recognisable).
With the curtains already up when taking your seats, the audience were able to study and marvel at the most remarkable set, of an ocean liner called the S.S. American; which deserved a round of applause in its own right. The lights that adorned it, and the lighting that changed the mood or the time of day, gave it a life and made it a sort of main character. There were minimal scene changes, as the action mainly takes place on deck, but when a scene was in a below-deck cabin or a onboard makeshift jail, the simple additions by props or by lighting effects were enough to fire your imagination and create the full picture in front of you.
The basic plot revolves around a host of lead characters, beginning with the firing and re-hiring of jack of all trades, Mr Billy Crocker (played with excellent comic timing by Gary Lines; looking like a young Graham Stark who – like his permanent pal, Peter Sellers – had a penchant for disguises and accents for roles that Gary Lines also hones to comedic affect in this multi-layered performance). The person who's hiring and firing him, is Wall Street millionaire Elisha J. Whitney; who's Foghorn Leghorn in human form, as well as being forgetful, boastful, often drunk and clearly enjoying the brashness he can get away with that great wealth allows. The role is played by David Roberts, who certainly looks the part even if it doesn't quite feel like he's at home in the role. His accent starts in Texas and ends up back in Gloucestershire but he gets the best laugh of the night with his closing riposte to Mrs Evangeline Harcourt about consuming alcohol, as well as being a sort of Mr Magoo character during the major portion of the musical when his glasses are stolen from him to avoid him seeing Billy Crocker – who has accidentally stowed away on board for the cruise from the USA to England.
The reason Billy sets sail, when he should have left the boat, is due to the encouragement of his friend, the noted Cabaret star and former Christian evangelist, Reno Sweeney, and also when he spots the object of his heart's desire in the form of Hope Harcourt (played with stoic straight-facedness and a soaring Operatic voice by Rachel Prudden) – who is engaged to be married to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, an aristocratic Englishman and all-round silly ass. You know that engagement is not going to last the course and the wooing of Hope by Billy is gloriously ignored by Evelyn, who has piqued the interest of Reno. Throw in a wanted Gangster (Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13) and his moll (Bonnie), who help Billy stay on board and turn out to be a lot nicer than the posh passengers that surround them, and you've got all the trademarks of an American screwball comedy laced with English farce. The ending sees a marriage take place, and I won't spoil it by saying who's marrying who, and the audience become invested in a stock set of characters that drive the plot along at breakneck speed.
With a whole host of highly memorable Cole Porter songs, like the title track 'Anything Goes, 'I Get A Kick Out Of You', 'You're The Top', 'Let's Misbehave' and 'Blow, Gabriel, Blow', there wasn't a toe left untapped, and with very witty – and surprisingly risqué – dialogue by PG Wodehouse (amongst others), it's a show that's certainly a stopper.
Reno Sweeney is the role made famous by Elaine Paige in the UK and Ethel Merman in the USA. Both of them short, stocky divas – with enough charisma to power the spotlights that pick them out. It's a belter of a role, that requires a fine pair of pipes and pins; plus a face that needs to appear sassy and smug without annoying an audience. Oh, and Reno gets the best of the zingers in her dialogue to throw about, with enough physical comedy to do herself some harm. It's a lot to ask for, in what is essentially the lead role, and actress Hannah Boydell brings her own interpretation and inhabits the part like she's been playing it for a long run on Broadway. She's tall, slim and dark-haired, with an energy that fizzles. She glides when she dances, she winks and mugs when needed, she showcases heartache and longing in the more downbeat numbers and she can deliver a razor-sharp put-down so precisely that you won't notice it cutting you to size. Plus, her legs go up to her armpits. For me, her scenes where she tries to woo Lord Oakleigh are priceless (played to brilliant buffoonery - with a John Cleese-esque, jolly hockeysticks persona - by the waxed moustachioed Samuel J Taunton; who has an English accent that goes beyond parody and then meets it coming back again) and her big show numbers send a tingle down the spine.
Backing her up are the comic double-act of Paul Chesworth's Moonface Martin and his shrewish sidekick, Aimee Sullivan's Bonnie. Moonface can't decide whether he's decent or dangerous, aside from when Bonnie tells him so. The comic confusion of him dressed as a man of the cloth and his speeches where he attempts to be one are sublime and Chesworth milks every line and twitch and stance. He's not your normal Gangster type (and a line in the script, which should have been cut, refers to him as being fat when he is anything but), though he brings a fresh take on something that could have been very clichéd. Aimee Sullivan's Bonnie, on the other hand, is a perfect Gangster's moll, with her attitude, look and accent all complimenting her physicality and brassy boom. She danced, sang and acted like a true professional, with a real likeability oozing off the stage and across the audience. She was sweet but shouty, flirty yet loving and bold but timid. It was lovely mixture.
The whole show is frothy enough to be joyous and there were moments of fast-paced, quick-fire energy – with everyone gamely doing some complicated dance routines – but, and this is only small criticism, it seemed to ebb and flow with the tide. The direction seemed to be off on certain scenes and sometimes the cast looked unsure of themselves. This is to be expected, when it is such a large production, but glitches that were probably there on the opening night should have been dealt with by the penultimate performance which I watched. The big bugbear was the microphone placed on the Upper Deck, which worked beautifully when anyone was speaking/singing up there, but popped and whistled every time the lower doors were open and shut or if characters were walking about underneath it. The amplification of the singers was a minor problem too, with a very accomplished band playing loudly and beautifully but – due to the lack of microphones at the front of the stage – often drowning out the lower register of voices on solo songs. It was especially noticeable on the Gospel-like number 'Blow, Gabriel, Blow', when Hannah's voice soars as Reno from the Upper Deck and, when she walks down the staircase still singing, her voice became non-existent, before returning again as she reached the front of the stage. Technical issues aren't always the fault of the production or, indeed, the director or the cast, but it's a shame it wasn't picked up early and altered. It didn't spoil the enjoyment of the show but it did mean you lost some of Porter's witty lyrics on occasions.
However, these are minor quibbles that may not have been picked up by all the audience, as the cast – as a whole – were setting sail for fun. Choral numbers were big and bold, Reno's Angels were suitably air-headed and light-footed, whilst the crew and passengers (who delivered a line or two) were all as American as they come. As always, with an amateur production and a large amount of smaller roles to fill, there were the odd few who just avoided appearing as wooden as the decking but were never less than enthusiastic and word perfect. The costumes were dazzling, the make-up was subtle and the production was polished. The un-PC characters were mostly harmless and, fortunately, played sympathetically and amusingly, but it's a surprise they aren't cut out these days (though, for a company used to playing Gilbert & Sullivan, that would mean the classic Mikado would also be a no-no area). In the end, it's all about playing to your strengths. If you can't dance, don't have a complicated dance number. If you can't sing, don't sing a song that you struggle with. If you can't act, don't give the audience time to notice. Director Sue Bennett did a sterling job marshalling the troupe but there were moments where her sea legs attempted a mutiny. The audience forgave any slips and there was plenty of laughing and clapping and cheering, all of it well deserved.
If you come away from a show like this with a spring in your step and a song in your heart, then – regardless of any tiny problems – the company has done exactly what you wanted. I don't think anyone in Friday's audience walked heavy of foot or heart when they left. That's the sign of a good show, when you hear the excited chatter of your patrons leaving and you know they're eager to come and watch the next production.
You can find out more about The Cotswold Savoyards, and join their ranks, by going to www.cotswoldsavoyards.org. There next production is Princess Ida.
All photos (c) Ian Ham @ TREVTOGRAPHY 2016
Barnaby Eaton-Jones went to the performance on Friday 20th May 2016 at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham