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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Whistle Down the Wind
Palace Theatre      Spring-Summer 2006

The first thing to tell you about this revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber - Jim Steinman musical is this - I saw it with a friend who had not seen it before, or the exquisite 1961 film on which it is based, or read the novel that preceded that, and she loved it.

That's important. This isn't the best musical ever written. It isn't even the best Lloyd Webber musical. But it does give value for money, with some lovely songs, a moving story and characters you can care about.

I could tell you lots of things wrong with it (and undoubtedly will, before I'm done). But my companion's experience is the most significant judgement.

Mary Hayley Bell's novel told of three Sussex farm children who encounter an escaped convict and, for reasons that make sense at the time, decide he is Jesus returned.

You can sense what follows - a clash of their childlike faith against adult cynicism, the effect of their innocence on the convict and of him on them - all of which was captured beautifully in Brian Forbes' 1961 film.

Lloyd Webber and co-writers Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards moved the story to the American South in the 1950s, in a Bible Belt village whose children have been indoctrinated with a simple love for a loving Jesus and whose adults have been filled with the fear of a Satan who may walk among them.

They also aged the central girl to 15, making this less a story about a child's innocence than about an adolescent's journey of growing up without losing her purity.

And it works. There is a loss (I told you I'd get to it), as there are only scattered opportunities to feel the pure beauty of childish faith - most notably in the first few moments of the song No Matter What, as the kids bring their little gifts to Jesus.

Instead, as I suddenly realised midway through, we get a lovely variant on the myth of Beauty and the Beast, she helping him to find his humanity while the experience matures her.

And a lot of that must be credited to the producer and director of this revival, Bill Kenwright.

His special skill in both roles is to create large-scale productions that still do not overpower the human story at the centre, and he has kept the emotional and dramatic focus tightly on the girl Swallow and the convict called just The Man.

For all the music, for all the sets flying in and out (with noteworthy smoothness and unobtrusiveness), we have two strong characters to identify with and a story to care about.

And we do have an Andrew Lloyd Webber score. If, in true ALW fashion, the two main melodies, No Matter What and the title song, are repeated so many times that we can't help humming them, still they are excellent theatre songs and well worth being imprinted on our brains.

And if, in true ALW fashion, most of the other songs are just filler, A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing To Waste sounds like a good Jim Steinman song (that is, you can imagine Meat Loaf singing it).

And since every ALW score must contain one unconscious bit of plagiarism, I'll note the brief echoes in Keys To The Vaults Of Heaven to John Williams' score for Jurassic Park.

Of course there are things that don't work. Those who love the novel and film will miss the special delicacy of their image of childhood. The attempts at local colour - a line dancing number at the village bar and a snake-handling revival meeting - add almost nothing to the show.

On the other hand, Bill Kenwright's focus on the two central characters paradoxically makes the subplot about another two unhappy teenagers seem more emotionally connected than it did eight years ago, when they seemed to have come out of a different show.

If Claire Marlowe is a bit of a blank as Swallow, that may be deliberate casting or direction, since the girl is meant to be discovering her character through the play.

Tim Rogers is appropriately macho as The Man, and successfully involves us in the character's painful journey toward his own ability to believe and feel.

It's not Oklahoma. It's not even Phantom. But it is a whole lot better than it seemed eight years ago, and it is A Good Night Out.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Whistle Down The Wind - Palace Theatre 2006