The Woman In White

  • Date:
    Monday, September 20, 2004
    Review by:
    Alan Bird

    In “The Woman In White” Andrew Lloyd Webber has returned to a gothic theme: unrequited love; tyrannical men threatening virtuous women, and a secret that has the power to destroy some while redeeming others.

    The inspiration for the musical comes from Wilkie Collins novel of the same name, a Victorian bestseller when originally published in 1860 and it has remained in print ever since. The story, adapted by Charlotte Jones, tells of two half sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, who are the victims of a sinister plot to deprive them of their wealth by Sir Percival Glyde. However, the mysterious ghost-like woman in white Anne Catherick seeks to aid the two sisters by revealing her terrible secret.

    Trevor Nunn’s production is lavish and spectacular, as soon as the show begins you have little doubt that you are in safe hands and that whatever faults the show may have, boring and insipid will not be amongst them.

    William Dudley’s set design (or should I say video design) is magnificent; the opening projection of a foggy station on which the woman in white first makes her ghostly appearance is spine tingling. Similarly the projections whisk us from rail station, to manor house, to open fields and the streets of London in a far more realistic manner than any physical set design could possible achieve. However, the video projection also has drawbacks. At times the whole stage appears to be moving as we glide along dales and swing round corners which means the actors are often walking far slower than the scenery moves which creates some very strange perspectives, however one can be tolerant as the sheer beauty of the projections amply compensate.

    Andrew Lloyd Webber has written a romantic score full of harmonious melodies, especially the song ‘I Believe My Heart’, which is as rich and varied as any of the scores from ‘Phantom’. The music is typical Andrew Lloyd Webber and so does have echoes and refrains from previous compositions, but it is still one of his most enchanting scores. My only gripe is that the show contains few ensemble pieces, which sadly diminishes the imposing ambience we have come to expect of a blockbuster musical.

    Maria Friedman is indisputably the star of the show, not only does her powerful voice easily carry above the sound of the orchestra, but she is one of the few musical stars whose voice is able to blast out a big number and yet still express the intensity of the words being sung. Her character, the heroine ‘Marian Halcombe’ - the self-sacrificing older sister of Laura, could so easily be played steeped in sentimentality, but Friedman imbrues her with fortitude.

    Angela Christian as ‘Anne Catherick’ and Jill Paice as ‘Laura Fairlie’ also shine. They each have strong singing voices and bring a sense of urgency to their characters that heighten the intensity of the plot as it reaches its climax with the revealing of Anne Catherick’s secret.

    Michael Crawford as Count Fosco, dressed in a fat suit and wearing facial prosthetics is totally unrecognisable and though he produces some lighter moments of humour, especially with the song “You Can Get Away With Anything”, the character of Count Fosco is too stylised to warrant such an august performer as Michael Crawford, and his talents are wasted in the role.

    Even though there are some flaws to the story, which I shall not mention here in order to avoid giving away the plot, and even though at times David Zippel’s lyrics sound banal, this production still works. The Woman in White may not be as good as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s earlier musicals, nevertheless it is still one of the most exciting dramatic new musicals to open in the West End in recent years.


    Production photos by Manuel Harlan
    Michael Crawford (Count Fosco) / Maria Friedman (Marian Halcombe)

    What othet critics had to say.....
    MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Andrew Lloyd Webber's best score in years and Trevor Nunn's visually vibrant production can disguise the fact that this show is saddled with an impossible book." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A terrible disappointment.....Yes, there are moments when Lloyd Webber comes up with the big lush romantic melodies that are his forte, though these days they tend to sound alarmingly like retreads of his own earlier work." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, " Fluent production....I suspect The Woman In White will be haunting the West End for some time to come." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "So old-fashioned it deserves to be stuffed and displayed in a museum for deceased musicals... I came out humming with boredom." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Why...doesn’t The Woman in White leap from the stage of the smartly refurbished Palace with the panache I’d hoped?...This lady is too pale and plump for thrills." QUENTIN LETTS for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Lloyd Webber's music, never before so classical and operatic, becomes hypnotic and slowly unveils its melodies. You have to work for it but it's worth it." SARAH HEMMING for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "There are not many take-home tunes and David Zippel's lyrics are often bland. Still, as a gorgeous-looking piece of daft escapism, it works a treat." PETER HEPPLE for THE STAGE says, "Lloyd Webber can still write a good tune but it invariably echoes some of those he has written previously." JANE EDWARDES for TIME OUT says, "For all its good points, I fear there is no enough here to add up to a hit."

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The Independent
    The Guardian
    The Times
    Financial Times
    The Stage
    Daily Telegraph

    Next review from one of our readers.....

    Tom Keatinge

    30 Dec 2004

    The Woman in White at the Palace Theatre (long-time home of Les Misérables) is a musical adaptation of Wilkie Collins 1860 novel of the same name. Set primarily at Limmeridge, the Cumberland country home of the Fairlies, the story begins with the arrival of the dashing Walter Hartwright (Martin Crewes) as the new art teacher for half-sisters Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman) and Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice). On his arrival at the local railway station, the vision of a woman in white appears before him, revealing that she has a secret to tell, but not precisely what the secret is. Once installed at Limmeridge his handsome good looks inevitably lead to the emotional attraction of both sisters, with Laura seemingly winning the day, until it emerges that she is already engaged to Sir Percival Glyde, who notwithstanding his good position in society is not all he appears to be. And so Wilkie Collins’ tale twists and turns, introducing us to Glyde’s “friend” Count Fosco, taking us to Hampshire and London, until we return to the railway cutting near Limmeridge where the story first started. The story is a good one, and the transformation to the stage is successful, delivering the emotion and feeling of 1860s life.

    But what of the artistic, theatrical input? And of course, what of Lloyd Webber’s much anticipated score? In summary…patchy. The scenery is non-existent yet cutting edge, projected as it is onto a white semi circular wall that rotates around the stage. This is not traditional projection, but 3D, animated scenery, like the sets in a modern computer game. The projection is continually changing perspective as, for example, the sisters run through the fields surrounding Limmeridge. I have to say that initially the whole thing made me feel sea sick, but once I got my sea legs, it was very effective – watch out for the stunning dénouement involving the train. The only other disappointment with the set was that it seemed apt to flicker like an old TV set, and indeed by the end of the performance I saw, one of the projectors needed to be turned off, so bad was the interference.

    The acting is generally strong, with Maria Friedman giving a terrific performance as Marian Halcombe. The night I watched the show, the understudy, Steve Varnom, took the place of Michael Crawford as Count Fosco. This is a mildly comic part which was played with aplomb by Varnom and which seems somehow suitable for an actor who started life as Frank Spencer. It does not, however, afford Crawford the sort of dominating role that one remembers him playing in Phantom or Barnum. Nevertheless, the only mildly memorable musical number of the night, “You Can Get Away With Anything” rightly belongs to Fosco. The parts of Anne Catherick (the eponymous woman in white) and Laura Fairlie, played by Angela Christian and Jill Paice respectively, offer little room for big performances, and both actresses seemed satisfied not to over-stretch themselves. I was particularly disappointed to see that both trained and perform in America, with little obvious in their biographies to suggest why they were chosen ahead of local talent. Oliver Darley and Martin Crewes gave good performances as Glyde and Hartwright, with Edward Petheridge producing a jewel in his portrayal of the wheelchair-bound Mr Fairlie. And so to the music… Lloyd Webber bashing is fashionable in some quarters, so I was determined to approach the piece with an open and unbiased mind, but try as I did, it was hard to find anything memorable in this latest score, this in the same week that I saw the Phantom of the Opera that is chock full of Lloyd Webber marvels), as you simply submerge in the music like a slightly tepid bath.

    Overall, The Woman in White is not an unpleasant evening at the theatre, but the memories are of technical digital wizardary and live rats and mice on stage, rather than strong melodies that you hum in the night as you walk home down Shaftesbury Avenue.

    (Tom Keatinge)

    Another Review by one of our readers Gary Mack

    Tuesday 31st May 2005

    The Woman In White opened at The Palace Theatre in September 2004 with great reviews! Sadly the show suffered a set back in the loss of Michael Crawford due to illness, he was hoping to return to the role in May but this was not to be. Michael Ball stepped into the fat suit and the role of 'Count Fosco' for a short time, he left the cast at the end of April.

    I was very pleased to read that Antony Andrews was to take on the role of 'Count Fosco' along with Maria Friedman in her original role as 'Marian Halcombe'.

    The Palace Theatre has undergone some much needed restoration work, and has been restored with magnificent splendour.

    When we entered the theatre I was sad to read that Maria Friedman was off sick and was replaced with her understudy Nicky Adams.

    The story opens as a dashing young art tutor to two devoted sisters is stranded at a railway cutting, he sees a mysterious figure dressed in 'white' who wants to share a chilling secret.

    The audience is led to believe that 'Count Fosco', a slightly overweight cunning man, is the villain of the piece, but is he? Well you will need to see the show as I do not want to spoil it, needless to say there are lots of twists and turns.

    At this performance the part of Marian Halcombe was played by Nicky Adams (understudy), she played the role extremely well and with more power than I expected. Her performance alone was worth the price of the ticket! But we were treated to a whole company of very talented actors & actresses. Antony Andrew's take on 'Count Fosco' was cunning and showed the character’s dark side, he played the role with much zest and fun particularly with his only solo song "You can get away with anything" he was great!

    Martin Crewes was great as the dashing young tutor Walter Hartwright his voice was pure and he played the part with great passion.

    The direction of the whole show falls upon Sir Trevor Nunn who has a great background with Lloyd Webber’s work, and fully complements the very clever stage and set design by William Dudley which makes full use of video projection - this is simply stunning. However I felt at times it was too much -just my own view. None the less the music as you come to expect from Andrew Lloyd Webber is thrilling and moving. This musical has without any doubt made its home at the Palace Theatre and "The woman in White" will be haunting its stage for sometime...

    Gary Mack

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