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Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind is an overblown affair



Review by David Munro

AS ONE has come to expect from Bill Kenwright, his touring version of Whistle Down The Wind is well directed, immaculately staged and generally good to look at.

It is not his fault that Whistle Down The Wind is not one of Andrews Lloyd Webber’s better shows; in fact, it could be classed as his worst to date.

After a disastrous opening in the States, he and Jim Steinman apparently totally revised it. Having not seen the original version, I cannot comment on whether or not it was worse than the final version.

This certainly has none of the charm and innocence of the original book and film, nor, if my recollection serves me, has it retained anything other than the basic premise that the children believe the escaped criminal they discover and help is Jesus Christ.

Transposing the plot to the Deep South exaggerates the religious overtones of the plot and raises the old stereotyped mantra that excessive fervency in religion leads to bigotry.

In addition, by making Swallow a teen-age girl, it gives rise to sexual undertones in her relationship with the Man.

In fact, the literal wonderment that children have in regard to religion, which was the mainspring of the original book (and, I suspect, the original version) is now displaced by a girl’s adolescent obsession with religion, whose motives are questionable, and who appears, at the end, to being on her way to develop into a frustrated religious spinster.

Yet, despite this, the gloss on the original plot could have worked had the authors the courage of their convictions.

As it stands, the organised religion of the adults is stressed with well-sung choral numbers, which contrast effectively with the naiveté of the children’s chorus.

The solos given to Swallow and her siblings swing between innocence and sophistication. Only in the numbers given to the Man does the dichotomy of the situation have dramatic impact, where he contrasts the facts of life with his wish to have the salvation offered by the children’s belief in him.

His scenes and duets with Swallow appear to be aimed to underline the change in her, from religious devotion to sexual awakening.

The authors seem to wish to have the best of all worlds, innocence betrayed by reality, religious bigotry and commercialism and a girl’s sexual awakening grafted on to a plot whose mainstay was the ignorance of innocence.

Lloyd Webber’s music is, in many places, reminiscent of his earlier scores, The Swallow/Man duets in particular recall the Phantom /Christine ones underscoring the relationship between them.

The children’s chorus has a flavour of Joseph and some of the choral writing could have been discards from the Requiem.

Interestingly, a lot of the second act, which was dramatically more interesting than the rather turgid first, seem to presage the great score – to me at any rate – of The Beautiful Game.

Perhaps one wouldn’t have noticed all this had the lyrics been more impressive. They were, however, banal and repetitive. Songs appeared in their own right, then grafted on to later ones, and reprised, it seemed, forever. All this went to prove was that good lyrics bear repetition, bad ones don’t.

This, I felt, was rather hard on those who had to sing them. Certainly, Glenn Carter, as the Man, came up trumps. He has a good voice, which he uses well. His diction was excellent, too good perhaps, considering what he had to sing, and, dramatically, he was as convincing as he could be.

Rosie Jenkins, as Swallow, I was less happy about., Her scenes with Ashley Lloyd, her young brother, and Carly Thoms, her sister, were charming and believable.

Those with the Man, I felt, were a bit forced and, in a key scene where she has to try and seduce a young local, Amos (Garrie Harvey), so he would take her to fetch a package required by the Man, she did not really convince me that she found betraying her principles was hard - merely, she seemed to be playing hard to get.

Her singing, too, lacked the innocence the part should have demanded, and one felt, at times, she was auditioning for Pop Idol, rather than portraying a part through song.

The rest of the cast seemed to have been selected for their voices rather than their acting ability, which didn’t really matter as not a lot of acting was required of them.

Richard Swerrun did what he could with the thankless task of portraying the children’s father, whose barn is destroyed at the end of the evening, and Paul Hutchinson was convincing as the town creep, who blows the gaff on Swallow and her secret.

Garrie Harvey, as Amos, whose affections are torn between Swallow and the local bar waitress, Candy (Debbie Corley) is a name to watch. He has a good presence and a pleasant voice. Although he was made up to look like a refugee from Grease, he nonetheless managed to overcome this handicap and gave a touching and charming performance.

As I have already indicated, the production details were good, scenery came and went without a hitch, one scene merged into another and all in all, it was visually excellent.

Bill Kenwright's direction did what it could to disguise the inconsistencies inherent in the libretto, and Henry Metcalf’s choreography moved the religious scenes with fervour of the feet, if not the heart.

The best dance was in a saloon scene, in the first act, performed by Scott Murtagh and Leroy Ricardo Jones, whose footwork was astonishing.

I do not think, at the final reckoning, Whistle Down The Wind will achieve entry in the list of Lloyd Webber’s memorable scores, and anyone who thinks it would be is, I suggest, three sheets in the wind!

Whistle Down The Wind, based on a novel By Mary Hayley Bell, and a screenplay by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.
Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics, Jim Steinman; Director, Bill Kenwright; Designer, Paul Farnsworth; Lighting, Nick Richings; Sound, Ben Harrison; Choreographer, Henry Metcalfe; Musical Director, David Steadman.
CAST: Glenn Carter; Rosie Jemkins; Garrie Harvey; David Robbins; Steve Fortune; Siobhan Morgan; Craig Armstrong; Michelle MacAvoy; David Lyndon; Martin Neely; Oliver Marshall; Georgie Fellows; Paul Hutchinson; Graeme Kinniburgh; Polli Redston; Debbie Korley; Michaelia Baptiste; Scott Murtagh; Leroy Ricardo Jones; Richard Swerrun; Carly Thoms; Ashley Lloyd.
Produced by Bill Kenwrighrt inassociation with The Theatre Royal Plymouth.
New Wimbledon Theatre, The Broadway, Wimbledon, London, SW19 1QG.
Box Office 0870 060 1827.

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