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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Jane Horrocks and Julian Ovenden/ Ph: Keith Pattison

However indestructible Irving Berlin’s score, there’s no getting around the fact that Annie Get Your Gun presents certain problems for the politically sensitive. A gun-slinging love letter to show business, it’s steeped in the romance of the all American cowboy and the mad, bad and dangerous wild west. It’s also racially a bit dodgy (all those patronising references to Native American Indians) while the plot pivots on its titular heroine, the best sharp shooter in the world, Annie Oakley, having to pretend that anything she can do, her testosterone-fuelled competitor Frank can do better. At face value, both can be hard to swallow, even in a musical lined with such wonderful, copper-bottomed numbers as this one. In response, Richard Jones’ Young Vic production takes its starting point from the fact that Annie is very much about popular American mythologies and maps a playfully self-referential course through a plot steeped in cowboys and show time. It’s an interesting approach—just not always an entirely successful one.
Jones implements several bold ideas here. He updates the action to the 1940s, reconfigures the score for just four pianos and marshals the action along Ultz's ’s thin proscenium arch stage decked in show-biz lights. Perhaps in mischievous response to the credits on the 1950 MGM film version, which proclaims Annie as "the biggest musical under the sun," Jones’ staging often makes a virtue out of the small: the scene in which Annie and her entourage cross America by train has the passing countryside depicted by tiny moving pylons and lumps of rock; while her first shooting victory over Frank is cleverly played out in surround sound.
Jane Horrocks makes a wide-eyed, indomitable Annie, newly hatched and full of brawn, and intriguingly oddly sexless (which makes her infatuation with Julian Ovenden’s Frank, who oozes cocksure charisma, all the sweeter). But she also has a tendency to gurn, and while she delivers songs such as "Doin What Comes Natur’lly" with enormous gusto, emphasising the sinewy strength of Berlin’s music, there remains the difficulty that this Annie is better at pretending to be a grown-up rather than actually being one. And while there’s excellent support from John Marquez as a slippery chancer/fixer Charlie, the supporting cast is unmemorable.
It’s also a tragedy that, for a musical boasting the song "There’s No Business Like Show Business," Jones’ staging should be so visually impoverished. The shape of the stage leaves virtually no room for any dance numbers; the cast often looks cramped; and the sight lines are dreadful. Jones’ inclination to ironise the more dubious elements also means he overloads it with too many ideas: both acts begin with video montages, the first showing idyllic looking footage of Native American communities against a rolling landscape; the second a plainly silly and crude sequence depicting Horrocks’ Annie, wearing a frock emblazoned with the stars and stripes, receiving medals around the world from various dictators (Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao). There are bracing moments here and lashings of good humour. It’s just that, despite everything, I’d prefer to watch the film.


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