Anything Goes at Barbican review: All aboard! This is a five-star musical thrillride
Anything Goes achieves a rare kind of alchemy by succeeding at everything it turns its hand to.
It’s a sterling effort in song, dance, staging, acting and storytelling, and it keeps the pace throughout. Tonally, it tightropes between farce and sentimentality deftly. The romance doesn’t veer toward schmaltzy, the comedy never towards cringe.
This will come as no surprise to the theatre community: when this version of the musical premiered in the capital last year one critic wondered if it were possible to create a sixth star.
Kerry Ellis leads the new cast as Reno Sweeney, a nightclub singer boarding a ship with a bunch of misfits. She takes an eye for Wall Street broker Billy Crocker, played by Samuel Edwards, but he fancies Hope, played by Nicole-Lily Baisden. The trouble is she’s being married off to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, a stereotypical British posho she’s just not into, played by Haydn Oakley.
Anything Goes first opened on Broadway in 1934, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. This updated version is presented by Kathleen Marshall, who hasn’t changed the format since her 2021 run except to give new star leads Bonnie Langford, Simon Callow and Denis Lawson creative freedom with their parts. These big names largely provide the comic interludes, with Lawson as shady criminal Moonface Martin, and Callow with a shaky American accent – but otherwise brilliantly funny – as Billy’s boss Elisha Whitney.
The big surprise is there are relatively few big choreographed blowouts of the type you’d expect from a five-star musical everyone’s banging on about, but that’s kind of the point: when they do come in, they roar.
The titular Anything Goes number that rounds out both acts gets a standing ovation before the interval. Opening night crowds tend to be full of friends and family and industry types who need to show face, but even so, there was a sense this will be a nightly occurrence; featuring two teams of tap dancers led by Ellis, the number is a triumphant use of every millimetre of the Barbican Theatre stage.
We need to talk about the set. With swooshing staircases, elegant ballrooms and perfect white decks, Derek Mclane’s ocean liner properly transports us into the middle of the Atlantic.
Away from the big numbers, there are shades of Much Ado About Nothing and Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off, with characters wearing drag to fool one another. Director Kathleen Marshall achieves genuine levity with all of this daftness, her actors breezing through the hefty script by relying on good jokes and strong performances.
Everything’s held together by Kerry Ellis. She’s one of the West End’s leading vocal talents, and was famously the first British person to play Elphaba in Wicked. Adopting a huge, honeyed Southern American vocal, she surprises with deft dancing too, skulking across the stage in a way that suggests she’s genuinely just messing about. (In other meta moments, she genuinely is. Trust me, it’s a fun show.)
Elsewhere there are gorgeous little musical ditties, rather than big numbers, often performed in duos. The most touching is a number called You’re The Top with Reno and Billy, which has a Gen-Z feel, given it’s about how much the characters fall over themselves to care for one another.
Through these more stripped-back numbers we’re given a series of lovely character examinations and more chances for Ellis to go to town.
There is an argument for another choreographed full-cast blowout at the finale but you’re certainly not left feeling short changed. This is properly silly, properly heart-warming stuff; I’d encourage multiple viewings.
Anything Goes plays at the Barbican Theatre until 3 September