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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 13:31 GMT
National lets its hair down
Annette McLaughlin in Anything Goes
All aboard: Annette McLaughlin as Erma

As director Trevor Nunn's Sophie's Choice continues at the Royal Opera House, his penultimate production in charge of the Royal National Theatre, Anything Goes, has just opened.

After nearly five solid months of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy in the Olivier Theatre, the National lets its hair down on its largest stage for an irresistible 1930s musical end-of-term romp, Anything Goes.

It's also nearing the end of the term of Trevor Nunn's office as artistic director, and for his penultimate production at the helm, he shifts from the frosty philosophy of Stoppard to the frothy fun of Cole Porter.

He must have also found it a light relief to turn to this alongside his nearly simultaneous Royal Opera House première of the new opera, Sophie's Choice.

Nunn - who helped shape the British musical behemoths of the 1980s as director of Cats and Les Miserables, amongst others - has lately spent time re-shaping American classics like Oklahoma! and South Pacific at the National, mining them for their inherent darkness.

Hastily adapted

But Anything Goes is of an earlier generation of 1930s screwball Broadway musical comedy, designed to showcase tall girls and low jokes, with scant attention to the sense, let alone sensibility, of plot.

This show recognised that in its very title, which was partly a joke at the haphazard way its original storyline of an ocean liner that gets shipwrecked had to be hastily adapted when a passenger ship really did sink off the New Jersey coast.

Sally Ann Triplett and John Barrowman
Sally Ann Triplett and John Barrowman star in the show
Instead of the ship going down, the plot goes overboard as the SS American crosses the Atlantic from New York to England, and the improbabilities mount as a nightclub singer, Reno Sweeney, selflessly surrenders the man of her dreams, Billy Crocker, to the woman of his, a debutante called Hope Harcourt, who is inconveniently already engaged to be married to a wealthy Englishman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

To be honest, light comedy is not Nunn's true metier, and much of the comic staging of the script here (originally by PG Wodehouse and others, and subsequently revised for a 1987 Broadway revival) groans where it should sparkle.

But both show and production are all an elaborate excuse, of course, to showcase a Cole Porter score of effortless sophistication and playful fun.

Old-school performers

Between the clunky scenes, it springs to sparky life with such effervescent numbers as I Get A Kick Out of You, You're the Top, It's De-Lovely and Blow Gabriel, Blow, with a haunting ballad or two in Easy to Love and All Through the Night.

Here, Nunn's production boasts some solid old-school performers to give these songs full value, led by Sally Ann Triplett's feisty Reno and John Barrowman's dashing Billy.

With a grin never too far from their faces, they relish the consummate joy of being able to sing glorious songs gloriously.

In fact, this infectious pleasure spreads from the entire company, particularly when they mass ranks for such set-pieces as the finale to Act One of the title song, which choreographer Stephen Mear turns into a tap routine so furious that it threatens to take the roof off.

Anything Goes is at the National Theatre until 22 March.

See also:

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