The Woman In White
Charing Cross Theatre,
4th December 2017
Who believes in ghosts? Everyone has their own story to tell with its own special particulars, and mine concerns a night some years ago, about the time that the original production of this musical was coming to the end of its run at the magnificent Palace theatre in the West End. I was cycling home from a night out in Southampton, crossing the Itchen valley down a long straight stretch of highway; it was cold, and clouds of fog and mist had rolled in from the Solent in opaque billows obscuring the way ahead and shrouding where I had come from in an impenetrable, silent, white wall of vapour. And there, down the centre of the road, wrapped only in a long, white nightdress, strode a woman, her long hair down and falling over her shoulders and chest, a confidant, slightly amused, even defiant look upon her face. Where had she come from? And where was she going to? And why on earth was she striding down the centre of a main road in the middle of a chilly night, barely clad? What was her story?
This show begins with just such a conundrum, and explores it for all its worth, with generous devotion and commitment. Inspired by the novel of the same name by the near contemporary of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by David Zippel and a book by Charlotte Jones, this is a compact, tersely written show, focussing on the claustrophobic world of two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie (lyrically passionate Anna O'Byrne) and Marian Halcombe (the ever mutable Carolyn Maitland), the first destined for marriage to Sir Percival Glyde (Chris Peluso, playing the honest truth of a blackguardly villain), the other to stay her surrogate mother, while the surviving parent, Mr Fairlie (Anthony Cable, caring but out-of-touch), trundles around their house in a wheeled chair, for all the world like General Sternwood in ‘The Big Sleep'. Yes, Wilkie Collins is pretty much the inventor of the noir thriller genre, and while his ripping yarns aren't exactly rich in psychological depths, any absences there are more than made up for in Lloyd Webber's astonishingly textured score, full of filmic detail, (truly) melodramatic underscoring and passionately agitated and yearning melodies, all paced with an unerring sense of theatrical shape.
Jones' script trims the source material into smartly manageable form, preserving those characters who thrive in the crampt, chamber-like setting. The circle of the ladies is squared by Anne Catherick (the ethereal Sophie Reeves), a cast-off earlier conquest of Glyde's – who becomes in our eyes more and more like Soames Forsyte, mixed with even less appealing traits of the adventurers that clog the arteries of the Palliser novels, and who also rejoices in an equally morally compromised running-mate, the oleaginous Italian Count Fosco (Greg Castiglioni, a new star in the making, with a very nice line in top notes), who may or may not be a real aristocrat, but does come complete with a medical bag full of drugs and/or money. Yes, there are many parallels with our own world in this land of long ago: the rich and powerful attracting hangers-on of the most questionable kind, who – far from garnering all our condemnation, tend rather to reflect back rather badly on their paymasters who, one feels, ought to know better. And there also artists, like the painter Walter Hartwright (Ashley Stillburn, exquisitely voiced), who arrives to give instruction to the ladies in aquarelles. With a judicious array of minor parts played by the resourceful ensemble of Christopher Blades, Olivia Brereton, Janet Mooney and Dan Walter, as well as one of the three available children (Alice Bonney, Olivia Dixon and Rebecca Nardin), this company is one of the best in town and a joy to behold in its own right.
Even more delicious do they become when given voice by the smartly turned, elegantly phrased lyrics by Mr Zippel: he and Jones make even the baddies seem wholesome and credible, and lend the good guys plentiful dark corners to lurk in, all seized upon by Lloyd Webber with alacrity. While the score begins amiably enough, lulling us into something of a false sense of security, we soon enough are dragged into a mire of selfishness, deceit, betrayal and greed, and the musical terrain adapts accordingly. Thus do we move away from musical hall or variety turns and into complex atonal clusters that would do the later Bernard Herman proud.
Not that all the fun is acoustic. The visual style of the show is predicated by a gloriously sumptuous stage design by the ingenious Morgan Large, whose briskly morphing set is utterly in tune with the cinematic, rolling movement of the script. It is lit with delicious sensuousness by the expert Rick Fisher, while beautiful costumes are furnished by the house regular Jonathan Lipman, and hair and wigs are by another well known name here, Richard Mawbey. Under the controlling hand of the theatre's Artistic Director, Thom Southerland, this production sees him on very top form, creating an endless succession of exquisitely measured tableaux that might have sprung directly forth from the brushes of the Pre-Raphaelites. Interestingly, that movement is a particular favourite of the well-known art lover and collector, Lloyd Webber, so perhaps that is a further aesthetic parallel to explore. Meanwhile, Southerland proves himself a dab hand at mastering the proportions and rhythms of genre conventions, revealing subtle nuances in every beat of the production, manoeuvring between set pieces with gentle, unobtrusive transitions of deceptive ease. Cressida Carre is his trusted choreographer, who manages the show's movement and dance steps with perfectly judged taste.
Meanwhile, off-stage, Simon Holt is on hand to conduct the band of ten, a fair sized combo to conceal in the virtually non-existant wing-space of the theatre: his approach is to follow the action on stage, to accompany them, rather than to get them to follow his lead. And the effects are superb. We find ourselves leaning forwards in our seats, eager to catch every beautiful note of the score, every precious syllable of the perfectly judged script and libretto, all finely and discreetly amplified by Andrew Johnson, whose sound design allows the most intimate and relaxed vocal expression to carry effortlessly throughout the house. Lloyd Webber has also knuckled down with the rest of the team to wrestle the show into compact, chamber-sized format, re-thinking a lot of the score, supervising closely David Cullen's dazzlingly brilliant orchestrations: the voicings of the parts are quite spellbinding and touch the heart time and time again with the tenderest pathos. Similarly, the company has worked on re-shaping parts of the text to suit its new circumstances, creating a production that plays with grace and fluidity, with excitement and beauty. And three cheers to producers Patrick Gracey and regulars here at this theatre, Stephen Levy and Vaughan Williams, as well as Adam Roebuck for bringing the project to fruition.
In musical theatre, as Andrew Lloyd Webber has said before, there are so many things that can go wrong, it is almost impossible to get them all to go right together. But when they do, the results are magnificent. As so they are here. This is a terrific rediscovery of a wonderful show, one which speaks from the past directly to the concerns of today, a strong and necessary statement about how men and women live together. It is no cosy, bourgeois, escapist fantasy, but rather a tough look at relationships, money, power and abuse, and one which doesn't talk down to us like children, but which addresses us as thinking, feeling adults, facing up to the difficult challenges life presents and offering us some hope in how we may confront and maybe master them. And that is certainly a message worth hearing now.