mon 22/07/2024

Annie Get Your Gun, Lavender Theatre review - new production in new venue has some work to do | reviews, news & interviews

Annie Get Your Gun, Lavender Theatre review - new production in new venue has some work to do

Annie Get Your Gun, Lavender Theatre review - new production in new venue has some work to do

In fields of lavender flowers, an open air show sung well and played beautifully

Who's got my torch? SuRie as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun Harry Elletson

A new theatre? In 2023? Now there’s a shot in the arm for the post-pandemic gloom. But there’s no business like show business – not for Mayfield Lavender anyway, who have found a corner of one of their beautiful purple fields and built an outdoor theatre for the poor, neglected souls of er… Epsom – but any investment in arts is surely welcome in these most philistine of times.

Co-founded by Artistic Director Joe McNeice and Executive Director Brendan Maye, the space is still a little rough and ready at the moment and its vast stage may need a little reconfiguring unless budgets expand to match it, but let’s not be too cynical by poking holes in a venture that’s finding its feet.

Wisely, the venue opens with an established favourite, a Broadway warhorse, the toe-tapping crowdpleaser that lends itself to the sky as a roof and the trees as a backdrop. Once you excise the racism from its 1946 original version, give Annie a little more agency and walk the tightrope of caricature with Chief Sitting Bull, you can’t really miss with Annie Get Your Gun and director, Simon Hardwick, doesn’t. 

That’s largely because Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ pedestrian book (revised by Peter Stone) is underpinned by Irving Berlin’s timeless tunes. From the big opener, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to musical theatre monuments like “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” and “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, the lyrical invention sparkles and the hooks burrow into your brain. A band can often fail to deliver on the music in open air spaces, but Debbi Clarke's seven-piece ensemble nail melody after melody with wonderful orchestrations that fizz with a freshness that delights from start to finish.

The cast have a tougher time of it. On press night, a few pops and glitches on vocal amplification must have irritated them as much as it did us, though forgivable in a new environment – for a while at least. But they never quite commanded the space, the wide stage dominating them when they were static and requiring a frenetic charging about when the bigger numbers used its full expanse. It didn’t help that one’s peripheral vision was continually attracted by the actors leaving the playing area but still visible as they walked to the backstage facilities. Infuriatingly, the more you tried not to notice them, the more you saw them.

The principal romance just about works, although some way of suggesting a growing closeness between the lovers would be welcome – it takes a while before Annie (to the house’s delight) literally jumps into her man’s arms. SuRie lends the tomboyish Oakley an earthy charm, the sharpshooter’s insecurity about her country bumpkin ways and illiteracy coming out in her feistiness directed towards the star of Buffalo Bill’s show, Frank Butler (Charlie McCullagh pictured above with Elliot Broadfoot). 

It’s always a little hard to work out why a woman as intelligent and resourceful as our heroine would fall for so charmless a man as Butler, for all his Hollywood looks, the conundrum perhaps an inevitable consequence of a plot conceived in the immediate post-war period. With SuRie’s Annie going full "anything you can do" from their first meeting (as she must to assert the sufficient agency for a woman fit for the stage in 2023 and not 1946) one’s left wondering why she bothers with the fragile egomaniac who has an uncomfortable Trumpian narcissism clinging to his every word? It’s an element of the book that could use a little more surgery – Annie should surely have swiped left!

“You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun” with its tortured rhymes and almost patter song pace requires vocal precision and it gets it from SuRie, although one can’t help but feel a little for her alone on acres of wooden platform. “I Got The Sun In The Morning” turns into a glorious ensemble piece, with the wonderful music glossing over some rather variable dancing. Each song illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the production.

Amongst the support cast, Elliot Broadfoot, all bristling moustache and carnival barker chutzpah, gives Buffalo Bill Cody character as well as caricature and Chloe Hart is genuinely nasty as the bigoted spurned lover, Dolly, a monster for all her man-eating desperation. Stealing the show with knowing looks to the audience and immaculate comic timing, Jay Faisca delivers the tricky part of Sitting Bull with a detached wisdom – if this were Netflix, he’d be on his way to a spin-off series.

So there’s still some of the "show" of "show business" to iron out at this new venture, but it’s a unique experience and, if it’s not quite everything it could be just now, it has considerable potential for the future. The lavender blooming all around the theatre is known for its calming effect and, in building a new theatre alongside a new production, I suspect plenty of it has been required over the last few weeks. But there’s potential here and I look forward to seeing how the Lavender Theatre unlocks it over this season and into the future.   

Let's hope the rain stays off for the sake of the cast, if not the sheltered audience. 

Debbi Clarke's seven-piece ensemble nail melody after melody with wonderful orchestrations that fizz with a freshness that delights


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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