Down on the Louisiana farms of the 1950s they obviously bred children in quantity, because there are dozens of the little blighters in this revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Whistle Down The Wind’. And apparently most of the Louisiana offspring were fed on ample supplies of corn, because this musical is one huge dollop of the stuff, dished-up on this occasion by Director Bill Kenwright (famous among other things for the long-running West End musical 'Blood Brothers’ which also features similar quantities of schmaltz).
Whistle Down The Wind' was first conceived as a book of the same title written by Mary Hayley Bell, wife of the famous actor Sir John Mills, and mother of actors Hayley and Juliet Mills. Bell’s book was published in 1959 and was a ready-made success. With a unique and anti-traditionalist slant on childhood, it was both original and risky for its time.
In 1961, the famous actor/ producer/ director Richard ("Dickie") Attenborough and director partner Brian Forbes took on the task of turning the book into a film through their 'Beaver' film production company. Shot in black and white in a bleak and rugged part of rural Lancashire, it achieved critical acclaim and considerable success at the box office. It's gone down in the annals of film as a classic children’s fable, not least for the performance of a rather young Alan Bates who made his debut in this poignant film.
In the hands of Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Jim Steinman, the scene for ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ has inexplicably shifted to the Louisiana of the 1950s. A poor farming family have just buried their mother, and as Christmas approaches with no prospect of gifts, the three children - Swallow, Brat and 'Poor Baby' - are ripe to clutch any straw that chance might happen to blow their way. Then one day a stranger fetches up in their dilapidated barn. Unknown to the children he's (perhaps) an escaped convict, but they seize on the idea that he's the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
I don’t wonder that many Americans resort to therapy if they’re given names like ‘Brat’ or ‘Poor Baby’. It’s a Freudian nightmare just thinking about it. But it’s also indicative of the overall approach to the piece. Not content with developing the relationships between the children and their newly-acquired messiah, Webber’s version unnecessarily contrasts the children’s world with that of religious bigots and racists in adult society. Put quite simply, the result is just too corny to be palatable, realistic or believable, and in the second half I was, frankly, bored.
Kenwright designed this version to be simple and in that he's succeeded, though some of his direction was rather too economical and static for my liking. Paul Farnsworth’s set is two-dimensional but functional, and the numerous scene changes are fluid and impressively orchestrated so they become part of the action rather than impinging on it. There's enough distressed woodwork to have interior designers salivating and flooding through the doors to ogle it for years to come.
But Webber’s songs are not nearly so memorable (apart, maybe, from ‘No Matter What’) as some of the recording successes various artists have had with the music might suggest. There's also far too much music, leaving little room for characterisation or story development through dialogue. One could easily prune a third of the numbers (many of which are reprises anyway) and there would still be more than enough. At the same time, Lloyd Webber's music doesn't seem to know whether it's opera trying to be rock, or rock trying to be pop, or swing trying to be swung.
On the positive side, the singing is pretty good throughout and the orchestra in fine form. Claire Marlowe proves an engaging (if rather static) devotee in the lead role as ‘Swallow’, and Tim Rogers was a muscular ‘Man’ (or Jesus if you prefer.) Rogers has a powerful voice which was used to good effect in most of his numbers, though it showed signs of strain in places.
We British seem to love children in plays and musicals as the approaching first anniversary of ‘Billy Elliot The Musical’ can readily testify. And in 'Whistle Down The Wind' the children don't disappoint - all the kids are extremely well-coached and focused, and their singing is good though unexceptional. But they certainly won't be letting down their doting parents. However, by the interval I was beginning to wonder if they were indeed 'real' children or clones, as they all seem to be exactly the same size and age with similar vocal qualities.
A friend of mine has something of an obsession for ‘Whistle Down The Wind’. He’s watched the film at least once or twice a week for some twenty-odd years. However, judging by the somewhat muted reactions of the audience on this occasion, I’m not sure that even my ‘Whistle’ addict of a friend will be venturing out to see this revival on more than one occasion.
Mary Haley Bell's book was ripe for bringing to the screen back in the 1960s and it got its just deserts - a captivating, gritty and somewhat dark filmic version that really did the novel justice. But that should have been the end of it. Lloyd Webber's 'Whistle Down The Wind' is so far removed from the excellent film (and indeed the book itself) that I could have joyfully spent two hours whistling in the dark for all the benefit or real enjoyment I derived from it.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "An unashamedly sentimental but sadly confused work." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Lloyd Webber’s most underrated musical and the score may be his best." IAN SUTTLEWORTH for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "Most of the time the score sets the emotional pace, and never breaks sweat. And the story...really needs some emotional intensity in the telling, not mere button-pushing." PAUL TAYLOR for The INDEPENDENT says, "A touching, achingly restrained story is jacked up into an overheated melodrama." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although this is minor Lloyd Webber, Kenwright's production works as fast-moving story-telling." CHARLES SPENCER for THe Daily Telegraph says, "A flawed show, certainly - but one with glimpses of greatness."