‘The best thing for YOU ...’ sings Annie Oakley in the rootin' shootin' tuner Annie Get Your Gun ‘... would be ME.’ The best thing for YOU, dear Londonist reader, would be to stay away from this terrible production.
Written in 1946 by the great Irving Berlin and specifically for its star Ethel Merman, it chronicles the 1880’s rivalry-then-love-affair between Ohio amateur sharpshooter Annie Oakley and champion Frank Butler.
In the Young Vic’s bizarre production, by opera director Richard Jones, it’s somehow transposed to a formica-and-vinyl Midwest diner like a leftover set from ‘Happy Days’, although in a hallucinogenic second-act opener Annie is shown in jerky 8mm footage on a kind of Evita-esque Rainbow Tour meeting Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and de Gaulle.
Featuring showtune standards like ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’ and ‘The Girl That I Marry’ the lush, broad, inventive Berlin score is - literally - hammered into submission by the substitution of an orchestra with four upright saloon-bar pianos built into the front of the stage.
The plot carries us across the sweeping Ohio prairies and on a tour of most of the Wild West. The Young Vic is a large and flexible space, but ludicriously-monickered designer Ultz (real name: David Fisher) reduces this to an extraordinary horizontal slit in what looks like Portakabin siding, with the movement cramped into about ten feet depth of stage. The sight lines are so appalling that the final clinch between Annie and Frank, in an upstairs room the size of a broom cupboard, is invisible to more than half the audience.
Merman's voice famously filled theatres without a microphone and she was known as "leather lungs", but by comparison Horrocks has a couple of Tesco teabags flapping inside her puny chest, and her singing is criminally underpowered for the belted standards, nor is it any more appealing in the ballads.
She seems beyond uncomfortable. Pitching the role as a scruffy waif in an early Pauline Fowler wig, she’s barely as tall as her Remington rifle which she wields like it was a caber in the Highland Games rather than an extension of her own right arm. She also has a tendency to compensate for her one-dimensional acting by gurning at the audience, most of whom seemed to know her only as ‘Bubble’ from AbFab.
Julian Ovenden looks charming as Frank Butler, and his fluting tenor carries the tunes beautifully. Too beautifully, perhaps, since Frank’s a rawer and more rambunctious character than this rather polite performance suggests.
There’s a willing and capable ensemble, too few in number for the size of the show, but good contributions from Liza Sadovy as a particularly grim circus harpy, and John Marquez as a Brooklyn showman out of his comfort zone in the wild West.
It’s such a waste. This is a show so ripe for revival, with tunes you could actually go IN to the theatre humming, they are so well-loved, and it deserves the kind of treatment Trevor Nunn gave ‘Oklahoma’ at the National, not this clapboarded ham-fisted high-school rendition.
Production photo by Keith Pattinson for the Young Vic