Anything Goes is the last musical under Trevor Nunn's directorship of the National Theatre, and as send-offs go, it's the tops. A joyful production of a suitably silly story set to Cole Porter's glorious score, which dispels the winter blues, sends us out into the cold humming and reminds us what unpretentious, uplifting entertainment a musical can be.
The story, originally written by P G Wodehouse in 1934, takes place aboard an ocean liner. John Gunter's cake-like, deceptively simple set revolves and divides to take us into various cabins and opens up magnificently at the start of the second act to show us the full orchestra sitting inside it. Beyond the deck, the sea stirs convincingly and the sky moves from day to starlit night, as the liner leaves New York for England with its disparate and romantically entangled cargo.
At the start of the play, Billy Crocker, ably played by John Barrowman, covertly follows his tipsy tycoon employer (an endearing Denis Quilley) on board when he sees that the girl of his dreams is taking the same trip. But unfortunately for Billy, his beloved Hope Harcourt (Mary Stockley) is travelling with her wealthy English fiance, Lord Evelyn Oakley, and her domineering mother, with a view to getting married in Westminster Abbey.
Also on board is Reno Sweeney, evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer, played with firecracker wit and smoky sex appeal by Sally Ann Triplett. Reno is crazy for Billy but knows her love will always be unrequited, so helps him in his bid to reclaim Hope. Further aid comes Billy's way in the form of Moonface Martin, a hapless gangster posing as a priest, and Erma, his man-eating moll (a fine comic double act from Martin Marquez and Annette McLaughlin). Between them, they persuade the ship's captain that Billy is no ordinary stowaway but a famous criminal, thus placating those who can't bear to travel without a star on board. This is a satire on the cult of celebrity and the glamorisation of crime 40 years before Chicago.
What is unusual about this musical is that the guy doesn't get the girl; or, in this case, the girl doesn't get the guy. Against all expectations, our hero, Billy, and heroine, Reno, end up with other people. So although Barrowman seemed initially miscast to me, handsome in a square-jawed Thirties way but rather too staid for the sizzling Reno, the incongruity works. If Billy were any more rakish, he'd be wrong for Hope - a colourless role to which Stockley, with her Cate Blanchett-like beauty, brings a thoroughbred dignity. And if Reno were truly hooked on Billy, she'd fail to see the charm in Simon Day's delightfully genuine Lord Evelyn, who eventually allows her to bring out the gypsy in him.
Porter's score is consistently sparkling. The most enduring songs come hot on one another's heels in the first act, appropriately kicking off with "I Get a Kick Out of You" and followed only two numbers later by the exquisitely worded "You're the Top".
The second act features less timeless tunes but opens with the magnificent "Blow, Gabriel, Blow", a parody of arousing religious chorus that makes you want to stand up and sing. It's a fitting showcase for Reno's Angels, a bevy of gorgeous, statuesque dancers. Akiya Henry is particularly enchanting as the Angels' assistant, a diminutive dancer with feet like fireflies and a smile as wide as her waist-span.
Stephen Mear's choreography is strongest in the ensemble and tap numbers. Compared with Nunn's Oklahoma!, in which the choreography melded seamlessly with the action, the dancing in this show can seem unremarkable. Certainly, the smaller numbers are sometimes slow and unimaginative. But Nunn's direction is elegant, the cast united, the set delightful and the end result so pleasurable that one hesitates to criticise at all.
In the past, Nunn has been pilloried for putting on big-budget musicals that fail to engage with contemporary issues. It would be a pity if this were the response to Anything Goes. There should be no need to justify such frothy, escapist entertainment, and at the start of 2003 it is precisely what we need. This show was written for a post-Depression audience in a era of permissiveness and uncertainty. Now, as then, we should watch it, enjoy it and take heart.
Anything Goes is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 22 March
Sheridan Morley is away