02 October 2009

Annie, Get Your Gun! - Young Vic, Saturday 3rd October 2009


When the traveling Buffalo Bill's Wild West show visits Cincinnati, Ohio, Frank Butler, the show's handsome, womanizing star challenges anyone in town to a shooting match. Foster Wilson, a local hotel owner, doesn't appreciate the Wild West Show taking over his hotel, so Frank gives him a side bet of one hundred dollars on the match. Annie Oakley enters and shoots a bird off Dolly Tate's hat, and then explains her simple backwoods ways. When Wilson learns she's a brilliant shot, he enters her in the shooting match against Frank Butler.

While Annie waits for the match to start, she meets Frank Butler and falls instantly in love with him, not knowing he will be her opponent. When she asks Frank if he likes her, Frank explains that the girl he wants will "wear satin and smell of cologne",. The rough and naive Annie comically laments that "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun". At the shooting match, Annie finds out that Frank is the "big swollen-headed stiff" from the Wild West Show. She wins the contest, and Buffalo Bill and Charlie Davenport, the show's manager, invite Annie to join the Wild West Show. Annie agrees because she loves Frank even though she has no idea what "show business" is. Frank, Charlie, Buffalo Bill, and everyone explain that "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Over the course of working together, Frank becomes enamoured of the plain-spoken, honest and tomboyish Annie and, as they travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota on a train, he explains to her what "love" is. Buffalo Bill and Charlie find out that the rival show, Pawnee Bill's Far East Show, will be playing in Saint Paul, Minnesota while the Wild West Show plays in nearby Minneapolis. They ask Annie to do a special shooting trick on a motorcycle in Minneapolis to draw Pawnee Bill's business away. Annie agrees, since the trick will surprise Frank.

As Annie and Frank prepare for the show, Frank plans to propose to Annie after the show. When Annie performs her trick and becomes a star, Chief Sitting Bull adopts her into the Sioux tribe. Frank is hurt and angry, and he walks out on Annie and the show, joining the competing Pawnee Bill's show.

The Buffalo Bill show tours Europe with Annie as the star, but the show goes broke, as does Pawnee Bill's show with Frank. Annie, now well-dressed and more refined and worldly, still longs for Frank. Frank and Pawnee Bill plot a merger of the two companies, each assuming the other has the money necessary for the merger. They all meet at a grand reception, where they soon discover both shows are broke. Annie, however, has received sharpshooting medals from all the rulers of Europe worth one hundred thousand dollars, and she decides to sell the medals to finance the merger, rejoicing in the simple things.

When Frank appears, he and Annie confess their love and decide to marry, although with comically different ideas: Frank wants "some little chapel," while Annie wants "a big church with bridesmaids and flower girls". When Annie shows Frank her medals, Frank again has his pride hurt, and they call off the merger and the wedding. They agree to one last shooting duel. Annie deliberately loses to Frank to soothe his ego, and they finally reconcile, deciding to marry and merge the shows.

Creative Team:
Director: Richard Jones
Choreography: Phillip Gireaudeau
Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Musical Arrangements: Jason Carr
Sitting Bull - Niall Ashdown
Annie Oakley - Jane Horrocks
Pawnee Bill - Eric MacLennan
Charlie - John Marquez
Frank - Julian Ovenden
Dolly - Lisa Sadovy
Buffalo Bill - Chucky Venn
The evening didn’t get off to a great start. Thanks to the Young Vic’s unreserved seating policy (booooo!), the queue was through the bar, up the stairs, round the corner, through the ticket hall and into the street, doubling back on itself several times, and threatening to merge with the queue for returns for Inherit the Wind up the road at the Old Vic. Anyone wanting to get a drink or go to the toilet would probably have needed an Indian scout to guide them through the crush. Getting to the cloakroom was like being at Custer’s Last (Hat) Stand. And anyone trying to track the footprints of the Programme Seller through the underbrush would have been severely disappointed as, although this show has been previewing for a week or so, they still hadnt arrived from the printers, which I think is disgraceful. There’s a strange sign right outside the auditorium saying “Annie Get Your Gun Downstairs” – a new fringe production, perhaps? Or an instruction? Whatever it means, its nonsensical as there are no stairs, unless it refers to the stairs up to the balcony, in which case the sign is in the wrong place. The chaos continued inside, where there were a lot of Excuse me, is anyone sitting here? conversations going on and lots of staff saying to people Can you move up?. At one point, cramming everyone in got so complicated that the staff were sending smoke signals across the auditorium to each other while trying to clear enough space for a party of six that had arrived slightly late. And then, two minutes after the curtain (vile mustard-yellow polyester and too long) was supposed to go up, one of the staff arrived carrying a big pile of photocopied sheets with the cast list and production team credits on, stood right at the front to hand them out and several small children, a pensioner and two gay men in plaid shirts were trampled to death in the crush. In fact, not so much Annie Get Your Gun as Annie Get Your Act Together.

The first major shock of the evening was that there was no orchestra, just four upright pianos ranged across the front of the stage where the orchestra pit wasn’t. . This, I suppose, gave the whole evening a folksy, Wild West (or “cheap”, depending on your point of view) feeling, reflecting the period in which the show is usually set. It was a novelty to begin with, but means that you miss out on all of Irving Berlin’s fantastic orchestrations, as well as making all the music seem rather thin and shoddy. Annie Get Your Gun was written in 1946, at the height of the American love affair with the Musical, and having only four pianos pounding away at what should be a lush, razzamatazz score (this is a show about “Show Business” remember) just feels so wrong.

The lights went down (in fact, the lights went up – they were chandeliers made of wagon wheels on ropes which were heaved on by members of the theatre staff – talk about “no frills”). The cheap mustard polyester curtains opened (as they were too long, this meant they swept across the fronts of the pianos – at least one of the pianists had to make a grab for their sheet music as the curtain went past) and the big shock of the night was revealed – this production isnt set in the fabled Wild West of vaguely 1890, but in a vague amalgam of the 1940s and 50s – the time the show was written, rather than the one its set in. This contrasted strangely with the “four pianos and wagon wheel chandeliers” set-up of the auditorium, and makes complete nonsense of a story featuring historical characters such as Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and Chief Sitting Bull. In fact, the confusion permeates the entre show – the entre’act, depicting Annie’s triumphal tour of Europe, is a projected film incorporating Annie into historic filmreels featuring Winston Churchill (Prime Minister of the UK 1940 – 45 and 1951 – 55), Ghandi (died early 1948), Hitler (dead by 1945) and Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book (published 1964). Part of Act 2, to go by the costumes, is set sometime in the 50s. Was this the director telling us that the story is timeless, or are there shocking great holes in his “concept”?

Another shock is that the stage is only about eight feet deep, presumably because the auditorium has been designed in a way as to get as many rows of seats in as possible. This means that everything is very linear, lots of straight lines and absolutely no room to dance. The director had a cunning plan to get round this last problem – not having a single dance routine in the entire show. Sorry, but when you’ve got no dancing in numbers like No Business Like Show Business you really do start to feel terribly cheated. As I’ve said before, the entire show is about show business, and this production has practically no show-biz in it whatsoever. The set is almost without exception dreary, there's a see-through swing door plonked right in the middle which is very annoying and terribly over-used, and there's a strange upper level to the set giving a small room "upstairs"; thankfully this isnt used very much because practically nobody sitting left of centre out front can see into it. Horribly, the very final scene between Frank and Annie takes place in this and half the audience couldn't see what they were doing.

The lack of pazzaz and sparkle even extends to the cast. Yes, Jane Horrocks is charmingly kooky, and her interpretation entertains for a while, but she’s not a big enough personality to bring the thing off. I have sympathy for her - doing this part must be like playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Every actress who plays this part has to wrestle with the ghost of Edith Evans, and every actress who plays Annie Oakley has to wrestle with the ghost of Ethel Merman, and also the recent memory of Bernadette Peters in the Broadway production. Horrocks just can’t cut it – there isnt enough theatrical weight behind her and Merman wins by at least three falls and a submission, if not a total Knock-Out. There’s also far too much reliance on Horrocks’s established stage persona – slightly Northern vowel sounds, crossed eyes and pursed up lips, which gets tiring after a while - and she doesn’t scrub up well enough to make the transition to glamorous leading lady in Act 2 (although there is a huge, unintentional laugh during Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better when she sings about how well she fills her girdle – Horrocks’s chest is like two peas on an ironing board). Lots of the second act looked horribly under-rehearsed.

Chucky Vennis a complete failure as Buffalo Bill. Not only can he not sing a note, he can’t act, is the wrong ethnicity (yes, I know its called “Integrated Casting” but Buffalo Bill was NOT black), is far too young for the part and is even the wrong body type. We all know what Buffalo Bill should like like – Howard Keel. Big and burly with long white hair and a big droopy moustache. Big Chief Sitting Bull is played here by Niall Ashdown, a tall, pasty-faced caucasian wearing a dreadful “Injun” wig that makes him look like Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming (and while I’m on the subject of bad wigs, the ladies in the chorus wear the worst-dressed wigs I’ve ever seen on stage – hideous!).

Still on the subject of hair, the book has also been scalped. There’s an entire romantic sub-plot gone missing somewhere as two major supporting characters have been cut out. A lot of their lines and one of their songs (which has been moved to the second act and, frankly, should have been cut completely) have been given to John Marquez as Charlie and Lisa Sadovy as Dolly. Now, here I change gear slightly and praise something. Marquez is completely wonderful, and is a joy to watch (as he was in The Good Woman of Schechuan at this venue last year. He plays his part with a great Noo Yoick accent, has total mastery of comic timing and could easily play one of the gangsters in Kiss Me Kate, so perfect is his characterisation. Sadvoy however, is far too old for her role, is deeply annoying and looks hideous in her red fright wig. I rather wish that Jane Horrocks had missed the bird on her hat and blown her head off instead.
Julian Ovenden, though looking eerily like a very young John Barrowman, was a brilliant, if not definitive Frank - very sexy in a veritable parade of increasingly OTT cowboy shirts and, finally, a pair of trousers so tight that you could almost read the cleaning instructions. However, it seemed that some of the songs hadnt been transposed for his tenor voice (Frank is usually a baritone, or even a bass-baritone) and there were a couple of occasions when he had to jump up from the register he was singing into one in which he was more comfortable. Ironically, this was most obvious in the song that Jane Horrocks was also having trouble pitching - in this case though it was written too high and she had to keep swooping down. He has great stage presence, great hair, a great voice and a great bod - its only a shame that he hasn't got a great Annie Oakley.
All in all, it was a spectacularly disappointing evening, and I came away feeling really cheated of what should have been a night full of escapism, great show choonz and outrageous costumes. The production was mildly entertaining, but completely ran out of steam very early on in the second act. I was forced to do my Ethel Merman impression on the train on the way home to compensate for such a dreary evening. And if you've never heard They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful sung by a 6'4" bloke on the 2325 Waterloo East to Mottimgham then honey, you ain't lived.

What the critics said:


webcowgirl said...

Held off on reading this until I got my own published. Def a lot wrong with the show, though I liked Dolly and thought she should look over the hill. I know there's room for more stage back there - why didn't they open it up?

rtb said...

So that they could cram in more rows of seats in the auditorium!

JohnnyFox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rtb said...

Always a pleasure, never a chore.

Oliver said...

Vicious and derogatory is the word. Rarely have I read such a deeply personal, toxic and potentially upsetting tirade as this one. Presumably Russell is some kind of frustrated critic or comic, given his truly lame attempts at humour, evident pleasure at the sound of his own voice, and the kind of brutal carping that hints at possibly clinical personal malaise. How sad that the internet provides an outlet for these kind of lonely attempts at critical vigilantism.


rtb said...

Oooooh, somebody from the cast, perhaps? Shades of the RSC "Taming of the Shrew".

Well, Oliver dharling, I'm not the only one to express dissatisfaction with this production. The West End Whingers and WebCowGirl, both highly respected reviewers, also gave this production a "thumbs down". And we're all waiting with bated breath for the newspaper critics to vent their spleen in the press tomorrow.

freespirit said...

I agree with some of the points you made and didn't particularly like the show, but like Oliver said, there is no need to be so spiteful about people - especially, I've noticed, in your reviews against women and people from different ethnic backgrounds. There is a right way to word things and that is something you need to work on in your critique. Some of the remarks you've made (Annie, Hello Dolly, etc) could be seen as sexist or rascist and I wonder whether you are from some period that Annie's actually set in. There is Freedom of speech and you have the power to be respected or hated. Check your writing before you post it. It will also be interesting to see if you allow this to be posted - you must approve our comments, but we can't approve yours!

rtb said...

I publish 98% of comments submitted to this blog by readers. There have been occasions in which I have been subject to vicious personal attacks for airing my opinions, usually when the subject of those opinions has not been mature enough to accept my criticism. I only published Oliver's because it was so over the top I actually found it extremely funny.

As I have said MANY times before here, these are my opinions. Everyone is entitled to theirs, and I make a point of posting up the professional critics' reviews as well as my own as soon as they become available. If anyone doesn't agree with my reviews, that's their right so to do. But I am always truthful in my opinions - I pander to nobody - and if I dislike a production then I have just as much right as anyone else to air my thoughts. I am not the only "amateur" to dislike this particular production, hence my reference to The West End Whingers and WebCowGirl.

One of my cavails with this show is its apparent inability to decide which decade it is set in, so your comment about hailing from the period "Annie" is set in is facile. On the basis of this comparison, I could have been from the 40s, 50s or 60s. My age or background does not have any bearing on how I relate to women or people of different racial background to my own. You are assuming, of course, that I am caucasian myself!

Your comment about my review of Hello Dolly confuses me. I have re-read it and can only assume that you take issue with either my remarks about some very disruptive fellow audience members, or the playing style of a cast member who happened to be black. If its the first, then I'm bewildered as their sex does not have any relevance to the fact that they were behaving badly. If its the second, then you have misinterpreted my criticism. The lady concerned was actually playing it in a style I associate with the somewhat outdated stereotypes portrayed in the film Gone With The Wind. Regardless or not of whether I subscribe to this particular stereotype, this particular portrayal did not work for me personally, and I would have preferred the role be played with rather more dignity than, once again, pandering to a particular racial perception of young black women being airheaded, innature and stupid.

As to my comment about the performer in Annie Get Your Gun, it is a matter of historical fact that Buffalo Bill was not black. Therefore, to have him played by a black man was historically incorrect and theatrically inappropriate, as was having Chief Sitting Bull played by a white man. I'm not going to be drawn into arguments about racial stereotyping or political correctness, but I will say that there are times when it is appropriate for members of a particular ethnicity to be cast in particular roles in theatrical productions and times when it is not. In this case, I personally felt that it was inappropriate to cast a black actor as Buffalo Bill. There were plenty of other roles in this production that would have suited his lack of singing ability, lack of stage presence and lact of acting talent.

freespirit said...

Wow! I touched a nerve I see. If you read my blog again, you will realise that I didn't particularly like the production either. As for other reviews, I have read those and they don't like it, but they are written in a way to be constructive, not nasty. In regards to racial and sexual tension, read your reviews before you make comments! If you were watching Annie and referencing other reviews, then you'll know that it was a mish mash of lots of different periods. Admittedly he wasn't strong, but it didn't make any difference that he was a black guy! In regards to Dolly which I also saw, that character is written as dizzy,it's all in the text. If it was played by a white person, in the same way, would you say it was sterotyped then? I wonder. We could go round in circles, but I just feel, like Oliver, there is a right and wrong way of making a point. You are entitled to your personal opinion, the same way that we are, that's not down to the level of maturity it's just that some of us don't agree with your style. It's a free country.

rtb said...

Maybe you should be lecturing Oliver on "the wrong way and the right way to criticise", not me.

Physician, heal thyself!

rtb said...

"If you read my blog again"

Unfortunately I can't, much as I would like to, because your Blogger profile doesnt contain a link to it.

What amuses me about so many of the people that slate me on this blog is how they so obviously create themself a profile simply in order to leave nasty remarks. I certainly don't see you, FreeSpirit, or Oliver, Mr. Charm Himself, berating anyone else on the web for their crits of this shitty production!

antonio said...

People were crushed to death? Really? The young vic staff were sending smoke signals to eachother? Really? Amazing that this didn't make the papers or the news. You'd have thought that death in theatre would make the news. How's that for sarcasm russel?
I'm off to see the show tomorrow after reading 5 star reviews in both the guardian and whatsonstage.com. You must have heard of them, they really are respected reviewers. West end whingers? Please. Have some class. That's what I call a bunch of people who probably always wanted to be on the stage but never had the talent. Ring any bells russel? Also my friend, you really should think long and hard before making personal attacks on actors. Tut tut tut! Naughty naughty.

rtb said...

Oh please, try and retain a sense of proportion and of humour.

You call it "personal attacks". I call it "criticism" which is no more or less than what some people get paid to do in the newspapers.

As to the Whingers, their reviews are funny, well-written, appostite and usually spot-on, so I will quote who I want, OK?

Danielle Atkinson said...

I've been reading these comments, and holding off on making more comments so as not to add fuel to the fire. But no longer - I can't believe that people are so small-minded as to be personally insulting. Surely Russell is entitled to his opinion on this, or any, show.
As to 'respected reviewers' in the press? There are many reviews these people have written that are not complementary - and surely it all comes down to personal taste and opinion. After all - I say tom-ay-to, you say tom-ah-to....Often I have sat through a play, a show, a film and I've loved it and friends haven't - but they are are entitled to their opinion, and I to mine.

So, I would advise Oliver, freespirit and antonio to take a deep breath, have a glass of water, and if it upsets you so much - don't visit again. I'm all for healthy debate, but such vitriol is not debate.

chillpill said...

I must say Russell I do enjoy reading your blogs, they really make me smile. We've never met but do have a some personal aquaintances in common and I am sure we will meet soon. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I support your right to write exactly what you like about any production you see. I used to perform regularly and gave it up some time ago but if I knew that you were coming to one of my productions and were likely to review it and there was a strong chance that you were going to say something derogatory/P**taking about my performance then I would do the thing that it seems some people don't seem to be able to do and that is...not log onto your blog site and read it and upset myself. Come one everyone, aren't we all being a bit Mary Whitehouse about it all (some are definitely being "Mary's" of some kind about it all). If you think that reading a crit of a production may well offend you which lets face it, there could be a strong chance of that at times, just don't read them! Plus, this is just one person's personal opinion, lighten up, stop getting your american tan tights in a twist and remember, there are so many more serious awful things going on in the world we live in, do we really think that Russell's blogs are worth getting the heart rate pumping to such an extent. Leave him alone. He's funny and entertaining and regardless of whether you agree with what he has put in his blogs, Russell should be able to write whatever he likes, he must have massive balls! (ps, lets see how many of you pass out and need a brandy after this comment of mine but....its only Theatre!)

rtb said...

Yes, its true, my balls are enormous.