Updated: Jul 23
Review by Rosie Holmes
A brand-new open-air theatre has opened in Epsom, Surrey. Amongst fields of lavender, theatregoers are transported to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in the Lavender Theatre’s inaugural production of Annie Get Your Gun. Featuring a beautiful score by Irving Berlin, the show is an ode to showbiz, but would this production really prove there is no business like show business?
Annie Get Your Gun is a fictionalised story of real-life sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who rose to fame as a marksman in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and of her tumultuous and competitive relationship with leading man and marksman Frank Butler. Berlin's score includes classic songs such as ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better). It was my first time seeing this iconic show, and to see it in this new open air venue felt like a wonderfully special experience.
Former Eurovision contestant SuRie takes on the title role of Annie, and absolutely stole the show. Her portrayal of Annie was feisty, witty and energetic, providing some agency to a female character who traditionally was very much controlled by men. However, SuRie’s greatest strength is her voice. Listening to her take on Berlin’s score with songs like ‘Moonshine Lullaby’ was truly wonderful, with a tone that sounds reminiscent of old school Hollywood stars and a voice that cuts through the sometimes-tricky open air acoustics. I could have listened to her all night, and I truly hope this is not the last time I see her in a musical. Alongside her is the equally charismatic Charlie McCullagh as love interest and leading man Frank Butler.. McCullagh matched SuRie’s energy in my favourite tune of the night, ‘Anything You Can Do’, as they showed off their vocals and comedic skills.
They are supported by a talented ensemble, with Chloe Hart providing many laughs as Frank Butler’s scorned assistant, Dolly Tate. Elliot Broadfoot is a wonderful Buffalo Bill Coady, although I do wish we could have heard more of his singing, since his opening line of the show was enough to wow me with his soulful voice and leave me wanting more. Nina Bell and Joseph Vella offer a sweet portrayal of young lovers Tommy and Winnie in a lovely version of ‘Who Do You Love, I Lope’ that showcases their voices and dance abilities.
This show is, for the most part, feel good escapism, however I think it would be amiss not to comment on how the narrative has not aged particularly well. The story features some often damaging stereotypes of Native Americans that have in the past caused protests against the show. This production thankfully avoids them, particularly noticeable is the omission of the song ‘I’m An Indian Too’. Similarly, at the heart of the story there is an inescapable misogynistic tone. Annie is told she must be more ladylike to get a husband, and her love interest is threatened by her success. Whilst SuRie’s Annie is feisty, I do wonder if more could have been done to bring the story up to date.
That being said, the show is still joyous to watch. The setting transforms a small corner of English countryside into the Wild West, as large cacti grow amongst the lavender and flags adorn the stage. It is in the second half, when the sun begins to set, that the setting is able to be fully appreciated. Adam King’s lighting glows against the trees and brings a magical atmosphere to proceedings. Whilst the staging is largely successful, it did feel like the piece would benefit more from a slightly narrower stage and seating rows. Having sat at the very end of the row for the first half it did feel like we were missing some of the action, with very little of the show being played towards our end of the stage. Similarly, in the bigger dance numbers the large stage did at times engulf the company, meaning the choreography and performance lost some of its spectacle. It was also a little distracting and jarring towards the immersion of the show that I could see into the backstage area. However, there was plenty of clever direction that meant there was a lot to be impressed by. The simplicity of the ‘special effects’, such as wooden block making gunshot noises, plays into the charm of the show and the setting of the wild west, and in that aspect Simon Hardwick’s direction is extremely successful.
Annie Get Your Gun at Lavender Theatre is a joyful and charming show littered with a multitude of recognisable tunes, set against a beautiful backdrop which will transport you straight to the wild west. While the story does remain a little outdated, a powerful performance from SuRie as Annie Oakley brings it somewhat more into the present. There is no doubt its playful songs will have audiences tapping along, and provide a few hours of classic entertainment and escapism. It’s always a joy to visit a new theatre and this theatre’s inaugural show proves to be a delightful night out. I look forward to what I hope will be plenty more visits to Surrey’s brand-new theatre in summer evenings to come.
Annie Get Your Gun plays at Lavender Theatre, Epsom until Saturday 5th August 2023, tickets can be purchased here Lavender Productions Ltd (thelittleboxoffice.com)
Photos by Harry Elletson