Whistle Down the Wind
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Jim Steinman; Book: Patricia Knop, Gale Edwards and Andrew Lloyd Webber (based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall)
On the face of it, the premise of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical doesn't sound very plausible - a group of children come across an escaped prisoner in a barn and are so convinced he's Jesus Christ that they hide him from the authorities.
Mary Hayley Bell's original novel was set in Sussex, the 1961 film starring her daughter, Hayley Mills, moved to Lancashire while in this production the action has transferred to Louisiana in the late 1950s: the heart of the Bible Belt where innocence and unquestioning faith survive and religious fervour is positively encouraged. We focus on 15-year-old Swallow (played by Claire Marlowe) and her two siblings (Henrietta Touquet and Christopher Thomas) whose world has been turned upside down by the premature death of their mother, just before Christmas. All of this effectively sets up why the children behave as they do, but in the end we accept that Swallow's faith in The Man (played by Australian actor Tim Rogers) is not because she is gullible, but because she wants her mother back and needs to believe "Jesus" can arrange it.
From the outset, Kenwright's production has an edgy quality. The lighting, designed by Nick Richings, is often harsh with dark shadows - suggesting that disasters are only just around the corner.
The success of a musical really boils down to the quality of its songs and this one passes the humming test. Aside from "No Matter What" which was a Number One hit for Boyzone in 1998, there are several others that make the grade including "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste" and "Tire Tracks", both of which are testimony to lyricist Jim Steinman's rock origins. Steinman is best known for his work with Meatloaf (particularly the Bat out of Hell album) and such hits as "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and "Holding out for a Hero". The varied nature of the songs here conjure up the maelstrom Louisiana would have been in 1959 - it was the era of the rebellious teenager and the early rumblings of the civil rights movement were about to turn into something more substantial.
But these rousing songs are carefully balanced with softer ballads such as the title song and "If your mother was here", poignantly sung by Michael Howard Smith as Swallow's father Boone, totally at sea in a word he no longer understands.
The performances from the two leads came alive in Act Two culminating in a sexually charged moment when The Man held back from taking advantage of Swallow, kissing her on the forehead instead. We don't know the full extent of his crimes, but we do know he is neither the villain that the authorities believe, nor the saint that Swallow and her siblings want. He is somewhere between the two, just human like everyone else.
Tim Rogers made an effective anti-hero though he seemed to take a little time to warm into the role. His performance of the Soliloquy and "The Nature of the Beast" were powerful and moving, ensuring we really did care what happened to him at the end. Claire Marlowe had the difficult job of convincing us all she was 15 but she brought a vulnerability to the role and was at her best when in partnership with Rogers.
The chorus of children was at times reminiscent of the entrance of Siamese children in The King and I and didn't always sit easily with the overall dark mood of the production. However, the song "The Tribe" (lyrics this time by Don Black) with The Man was effectively done and gave a much needed humorous boost to the proceedings. The children were a vital part of the plot for they were the human shield that protected The Man from the authorities. The fact that he let them go, sealing his own fate, provided the catalyst for his redemption.
The set, designed by Paul Farnsworth was effectively simple, changing seamlessly from the barn, to Swallow's impoverished homestead, to a bar frequented by rock-and-roll teenagers, eager to escape. All provided eloquent pictures of the American landscape.
This revival is certainly a timely return to form for Lloyd Webber, after some lacklustre productions over the past few years. This all-round good family entertainment is currently promised for a limited run, though I suspect Bill Kenwright's passionate direction may make it a longer possibility.
Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart