Searching out lost musicals of yesteryear is rather like reading The Da Vinci Code. The long slog through banal lines and plod plotting is never rewarded by the ultimate revelation.
This does not stop theatres from dusting off hits of the past, usually to pointless effect and occasionally to the point of self-implosion, as English National Opera discovered when it set Kismet in post-Saddam Baghdad. Anyone for car-bombs?
Most musical theatre is, of its nature nostalgic. To restage old musicals is to evoke nostalgia about nostalgia, an appropriate post-modern detachment, but one that is unlikely to illuminate much about the human condition in recessional mood.
It was with these reservations that I went to see Richard Jones’s seasonal hit of Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic, only to come out with a song on my lips and a renewed faith in the power of well-made escapism.
Irving Berlin wrote the music and the show stormed Broadway in 1946 with Ethel Merman as the original pistol-popping mama. Nothing about it rings true. What’s a nice Jewish boy from the shtetl writing about a circus with sharpshooters, and who the hell’s gonna care whether Annie can shoot sharper than that wuss of a Frank? The sexual stereotyping was barely acceptable in 1946, when women had just worked their way through a second World War, and the characters are thinner than a weight-watcher’s wafer.
Richard Jones, who decorated his Covent Garden Ring cycle with all manner of irrelevant clutter, opens in a 1950s diner and moves on to a 1930s transatlantic liner. Continuity was never his strong point. What gives the show its kick is a kind of high-wire refusal to look down at the way people react when they are caught in a ridiculous situation. We do not care much whether Annie gets Frank or goes into a nunnery, but when she sings Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better she transcends gender rivalry and confronts us with an everyday work situation. If it’s him or me, and we’re still going to be sharing an office afterwards, how do we deal with this problem?
Jane Horrocks is a rollicking Annie, Julian Ovenden a bit of a tailor’s dummy in the thankless role of Frank. Both are pitch-perfect and able to sing softly, when required, to a clattery four-piano accompaniment. The decor is a sickly green last favoured in Gerard Mortier’s Salzburg era, but the eye is engaged as much as the ear and, if the heart never flutters, the mind has more to conjure with than I expected. The show has been extended into January, by evident demand, and may well run and run in a larger house. It is trivial without being silly. I wish some of our politicians could manage that feat.