ADC Theatre – Tues 9th-Sat 20th March 2010
Roll up! Roll up! To see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show! All singin’, all dancin’, all shootin’, all kissin’, all… casual racism.
This is the story of Annie Oakley (Charlotte Reid), the finest little sharpshooter in the West, who joins a travelling show and falls in love with fellow marksman, Frank Butler (Will Karani). Along the way she has an exchange with a Sioux chieftain that goes a little something like, ‘Gee, Poppa Bull, you want me to change my ethnicity? Well, jumping Jehosaphat, why the heck not!’ and is adopted into his tribe. With music by Irving Berlin, Annie Get Your Gun is shot-full of great tunes: ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’, ‘You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun’, and possibly one of the funniest duets in all of musical theatre, ‘Anything You Can Do.’
Why, then is this musical not better known? Well, maybe because it’s quite racist. The character of the champagne-quaffing Sioux chief Sitting Bull may well have gone down a storm in 1946, when the musical was written, but sits decidedly uncomfortably with a modern audience, brought up to say ‘Native American’ rather than ‘Injun’. It is difficult to know how to approach this: the ‘Indians’ are integral to this tale of Cowboys and Indians, and a director should face a dilemma of whether to be unfaithful to the original script (several recent productions have omitted the song ‘I’m An Indian Too’), or risk accusations of cultural insensitivity by following it. Director Ben Kavanagh does not, however, seem to have given the matter much thought. While no Oliver! today would expect us to laugh at Fagin’s Judaism, we are apparently meant to find Sitting Bull (Andy Brock) funny purely because of his generic foreignness – his wild-eyed, gnomic utterances in a quasi-Japanese accent, his joke-shop feathered headdress. This is not presented within a period piece context, but simply as uncritically amusing. Unthinking; unforgiveable.
Charlotte Reid’s performance as the eponymous Annie goes some way towards redeeming the production. Reid is delightfully fiery, displaying superb comic timing as she prowls about the stage, making men nervous with her gun and her hick vowels. She makes the transition from proto-feminist to succumbing to Butler noxious request for ‘a woman as soft and pink as a nursery’ seem almost plausible. Her singing voice is fine and clear, though her perfect diction makes lines like the list of comedy ‘Indians’ Falling Pants and Running Nose stand out all the more.
There were several other excellent comic turns, by Oskar McCarthy as Col. Buffalo Bill, Liane Grant as the put-upon Dolly, and James Sharpe as the owner of an oddly slanting hotel (which is presumably an attempt at playing with perspective but looks more like the carpenter had been hitting the moonshine). Even these, however, hinted at actors doing too much to compensate for a lack of direction. McCarthy has developed a peculiar walk, like a line dancer with a soiled nappy; Sharpe growls hoarsely in an indeterminate accent; Jeff Carpenter strikes a bizarre pose upstage for a whole scene, his raised hands fixed into gnarled claws, for no apparent reason other than that no one told him not to. Kavanagh has perhaps focused his energies on the choreography, which is undeniably slick. The absence of a coherent vision, and the objectionable do-si-do it does around some important issues means that, unlike its heroine, Annie Get Your Gun misses its target.