When Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White first premiered in the West End in 2004, some critics (including me!) prescribed Dramamine, in case spectators suffered from motion sickness thanks to its jarring use of video technology, then in its infancy, instead of physical sets. (Nowadays it works far more happily alongside sets in shows like An American in Paris). But Thom Southerland's new production, its first in London since then, has smartly shrink wrapped the show to the intimate chamber opera it was always trying to be and is all the more effective for it.
It has also been beautifully designed by Morgan Large, supported by a superb team that also includes sterling work from costume designer Jonathan Lipman and lighting designer Rick Fisher, to evocatively summons its world of spectral Victorian melodrama more economically and realistically than any video design.
You can see (and frequently hear) why Lloyd Webber, who previously scored The Phantom of the Opera based on a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, was attracted to Wilkie Collins's 1860 story: it's likewise another intricately layered gothic plot of period romance in which lovers head tortuously towards their destinies, against a swirling backdrop of colourful characters with mysterious motivations.
The score, which begins full of Benjamin Britten-esque echoes, eventually dissolves into a gorgeous run of lovely tunes, all of them fantastically well sung here - it's worth going just for the voices. Lloyd Webber hasn’t stinted on spectacular ballads, and there’s one of his absolute classics here, “Evermore Without You”, for which American lyricist David Zippel has crafted poetic words with economy and emotion, and which receives a spellbindingly intense rendition from Ashley Stillburn. He plays drawing tutor Walter Hartwright who comes to teach two half-sisters Marian (Carolyn Maitland) and Laura (Anna O'Bryne), and falls in love with one of them.
But Sir Percival Glyde (Chris Peluso) also has ambitions, which revolve more around the inheritance involved, than romance. There’s lots to keep up with in the telescoping (by playwright Charlotte Jones) of Collins’ dense mystery novel. The show has been mercifully streamlined from its original three hours to 2 hours 20 minutes, but retains its sweep and drama.
The Woman in White should not be confused (though it often is) with The Woman in Black, another long running mystery drama in the West End. (Nor, of course, does it feature Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Red"). It is a powerful, poignant and underrated part of the Lloyd Webber catalogue, brilliantly restored here.
The Woman in White is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 10th February 2018.
The Woman in White Tickets are available now.
What the press said...
"The story makes great play of the secrets of the grave but this isn’t the resurrection that Lloyd Webber’s musical requires." - Lyn Gardner, Guardian (three stars)
"A number of songs — I Hope You Like It Here, Perspective — are hummably memorable and the entire cast in Thom Southerland’s accomplished production are pleasingly sweet-voiced." - Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard (four stars)
"There may be nothing in the lush, romantic score to match Phantom’s rip-roaring ballads The Music of the Night and All I Ask of You – shades of which creep in. But time and again, thanks to strong vocal work, we’re hit by hammer-blow after hammer-blow of grand emotional intensity. " - Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph (three stars)