It is not every story that becomes the subject of more than one musical. Peter Pan, The Wild Party and Phantom of the Opera are examples that spring easily to mind, but doubtless there are others. What is possibly unique though is for more than one work of one composer to be the subject of the work of more than one other creative team. Yet, there it is. First, Phantom of the Opera was reimagined a few times after the Lloyd Webber version, most notably by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit.
Now, playing at the Union Theatre, is the London professional premiere of Russell Labey and Richard Taylor’s version of Whistle Down The Wind, based on Mary Hayley Bell’s book and the successful film adapted from it, upon which the moderately successful Lloyd Webber musical (which has had several incarnations) of the same name was also based.
Directed by the insightful Sasha Regan and with astute, skilled musical direction from the gifted David Griffiths, this version of Whistle Down The Wind is not a flashy affair, but an honest, delicate one.
The narrative is the familiar one. Three siblings find a stranger in their barn. He is wounded and they believe him to be Jesus Christ come back to earth. They keep the stranger’s presence secret from the grown-ups even though they know that the grown-ups are all worried because a murderer is on the loose and being hunted. They see no correlation between the man the grown-ups hunt and their Jesus. Inevitably, the secret gets out among the other children, their friends, and they all come to see and feel the presence of the stranger. They all believe he is Christ.
Eventually, the local bully finds out about the secret and betrays the presence of the stranger to the grown-ups, who come to hunt him down, bring him to justice. But the children stand in their way, prevent their access to the stranger. The barn where the stranger has been hiding bursts into flames. When the remains are examined, there is no trace of the stranger, but there is a gift left behind for the children. Perhaps also for the grown-ups.
The particular interest in the piece comes from the ambiguity: it is never clear whether the stranger is the murderer being sought by the adults. And, if he is not, who is he and why is he wounded when he is found by the children? Could he actually be Christ returned to Earth? Given how he galvanises the faith of the children, does it matter who he is?
It’s a simple tale about belief, faith and love. Happily, Labey and Taylor completely understand that and so the book, score and lyrics are not flashy or unseemly; rather, they combine to evoke the simplicity of life in Lancashire in the 1950’s: a time when the possibility of a miracle was still tangible.
The story is told concisely and with real feeling. Scenes move easily, not clunkily, and the sense of the words and situations help create the period mood of the piece, as well as the inherent, ambiguous drama. There is a real honesty in the approach of the creators which is refreshing for this simple, wondrous tale.
The score is similarly honest, with some difficult harmonies and pretty, simple melodies that have a nostalgic glow about them without feeling pastiche or dull. The music enhances the mood constantly; the songs don’t always move the action along or provide insight into character – sometimes they are just songs which emphasise or give colour to what has happened or been said. This approach, perhaps counter-intuitively, results in the music becoming an integrated and welcome part of the story-telling.
Another clever aspect to the score centres around its sense of childhood. Where the children sing, it sounds like music children might sing. Where the adults sing, the musical demands are more onerous; more complexity is introduced to the score. In the climactic scene when the child believers defy the adults and keep them away from the stranger in the barn, the anthem they sing, Follow! Follow! Follow Him! is powerful and stirring.
Regan’s sure and steady direction brings the piece to life with charm and warmth. From the moment the three siblings rescue three new-born kittens from drowning right through to the exploration of the burnt-out barn and the discovery of the stranger’s gift, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of a youngster; Regan makes the audience feel like one of the village children: watching, involved, committed and then captivated. She brings you inside the story, making you complicit in the unfolding events, to great effect.
The cast are committed to Regan’s vision and unite in conveying it convincingly. Sensibly, Regan does not use real children to play the roles of the village children; she uses young adults who play down. It works at every level: their realisation of the youngsters is real, not silly; their sense of community is complete so that when they rebel it is believable; and, in each performer, you see both the child and the adult they will become, the adult forever affected by these events.
As the central siblings, Cathy, Nan and Charles, Grace Osborn, Imelda Warren-Green and Alex James Ellison are each splendidly natural, full of charm, and the banter and bickering to and fro of growing up. Ellison was especially good at capturing the essence of the little brother and the sense of sisterhood between Osborn and Warren-Green was delightful. Together with Chris Coleman’s impressive, sturdy and loving Dad and Kathryn Hamilton-Hall’s no-nonsense Auntie, the central family is completely believable, warm and funny. They all sing well, but Osborn and Ellison are particularly good.
Callum McArdle plays the stranger, the bearded, wounded man known only as The Man. He has a terrific voice and presence and easily meets the acting challenges the role provides. He is both wounded monster and lost miracle worker; the duality in his being is cleverly portrayed, never more clearly than in I Don’t Know What They’re Waiting To Hear and the duet with Osborn, Please, Jesus.
Joshua Lewindon makes a fine village bully, but shows his versatility when he plays another boy who is kind, donating his jumper to the stranger. Harry Wright is excellent as the bespectacled musical child in the village and Romero Clark displays an impressive voice and authoritarian presence as the Policeman.
The rest of the cast are all good (although there could be less miss Prism in Bryan Hodgson’s effete Vicar) and when all sing together, the effect is powerful indeed, musically and dramatically.
Nik Corrall’s designs, both set and costumes, work well in the small space that is the Union and more than adequately convey a sense of proper time and place. The final reveal of the gift and the burning of the barn are especially well done, not the least because of Tim Deiling’s moody lighting.
It’s good to see Regan championing British musicals at the Union and refreshing to see a new musical that represents new ground. Boyzone may never record a song from this score but that is not to say this version is inferior to Lloyd Webber’s. It’s not. It’s quite different – and its heart is in the right place and the score deserves attention.
Well worth making time to see.