Anything Goes at the Barbican Centre: light, frothy and utterly excellent

Kerry Ellis dazzles in Kathleen Marshall’s revival of this 30s musical

I’m a pretty frequent theatregoer and yet it’s been a long time since I watched an ensemble tap number. The prospect of one probably wouldn’t have excited me all that much either. But there is something unexpectedly spellbinding about watching Kerry Ellis lead the cast of Anything Goes in a toe-tapping marathon over the Barbican stage, a callback to a past era of theatre. Oftentimes stories from even twenty years ago leave us a little on edge – we have to be ready to knowingly grimace at anything that hasn’t quite stood the test of time. But this 1930s musical has aged like wine, packed with likeable characters, catchy numbers and plenty of hilarity for a deliciously vintage night of entertainment.

The story follows an eclectic group of people crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner bound for London – nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, mildly notorious gangster Moonface Martin, pining lover Billy Crocker, debutant Hope Harcourt, her fiancé Lord Evelyn Oakley, and other assorted characters. There are love triangles, brushes with the law, cases of mistaken identity, and all manner of farcical hilarity. It’s unsurprising to learn that PG Wodehouse had a hand in the book. Silly and camp it may be, but if you can learn to embrace the jaunty tunes and dancing sailors then you’re in for a fantastic time.

Kerry Ellis as Reno Sweeney performs Anything Goes | 2022 Teaser Performance

Kathleen Marshall’s production remains a triumph after it scooped up almost every Olivier nomination going earlier this year. Light, frothy and completely charming, its ocean liner setting makes the whole thing feel like an early summer holiday. Derek McLane’s ingenious set bowls us over with that initial reveal of the ship’s deck but doesn’t strand us there for the entire show – it lets us peek into ornate cabins, join the festivities in the downstairs bar and watch the sun come up over the funnels. Coupled with Hugh Vanstone’s thoughtful lighting, the overall effect is dreamy.

The stage is packed with West End heavyweights – Simon Callow appears as grumbling drunkard Eli Whitney, Bonnie Langford is the frenetic Mrs. Harcourt, and Denis Lawson has a scene-stealing turn as Moonface Martin, low-level public enemy disguised as a vicar, a rich source of physical comedy for Lawson. Cast members from the original production are also back, with Hadyn Oakley particularly shining as eccentric English aristocrat Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

But it’s Kerry Ellis who shines the brightest, as any Reno Sweeney should. Ellis is pure charisma as the singer-turned-matchmaker, heading up huge ensemble numbers like “Blow, Gabrielle, Blow” and the titular “Anything Goes” with both drive and levity. “Friendship”, her duet with Lawson, is one of the highlights of the show, both parties attempting to outdo each-other until their bickering leads to an interruption from the conductor and a cheeky fourth wall break. Anything Goes has a fantastic ensemble cast, but just like Sutton Foster before her, the difference between one standing ovation and three (yes, three) rests on Ellis’ shoulders.

Anything Goes is now playing at the Barbican Centre. Find tickets here.