Whistle Down The Wind
The Watermill Theatre
Reviewed – 27th July 2022
“Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout”
The premise of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind” is interesting, and quite fun; if not a little implausible. A group of children stumble upon an escaped killer in a barn and through their unwavering belief that he is the Second Coming, they decide to keep his whereabouts a secret from the authorities. Despite being inescapably aware of the townsfolk’s collective hysteria about a murderer being on the loose.
The musical’s book (by Lloyd Webber himself, with Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards) has taken the action Stateside from its humble, English birthplace. The original novel, by Mary Hayley Bell, was set in Sussex while the 1961 film had moved up to Lancashire. We now find ourselves in the heart of the Louisiana Bible Belt. It is the 1950s and religious zeal is as high as the crop in the cornfields. Spearheaded by the adolescent Swallow (Lydia White), the young ones seem to question their elders’ unflinching faith yet refuse to bend from their own fledgling faith. Contradiction seems to be an underlying motif to this story.
The central theme pits the childhood innocence against adult cynicism; young, wide-eyed faith in ‘good’ against the older, blind faith in ‘evil’. Swallow symbolises the former, yet in Tom Jackson Greave’s staging she is too mature to give real credibility to her naive and innocent belief in ‘The Man’ who has unwittingly become Jesus Christ incarnate. White sweeps this worry aside, though, with an energetic and enthralling performance that sees her in customary fine voice.
Musically the show is disjointed, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but in this case it’s hard to understand the shifts in styles. However, there is no denying the quality of music. Each number would pass the Old Grey Whistle test. Lloyd Webber’s theatricality is in full view, framed with influences of gospel, nineties pop, sixties rock, and with reprises and leitmotifs aplenty. And, of course, the mark of the late, great Jim Steinman is stamped indelibly across much of the libretto. “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” and “Nature of the Beast” have hot-footed over straight from a Meatloaf gig.
Incongruous to the infectious score is Jackson Greaves’ choreography, much of which feels out of place with the lyrical narrative. The ghost of Swallow’s mother, dancing like a spectral Kate Bush at every conceivable moment is eventually jarring. The intent is clear but unnecessarily overplayed. Similarly overstated is the bible bashing nature of the community. Conversely, the inherent Southern racism of the era is not fully given voice; its mouthpiece confined predominantly to the red neck sheriff – albeit convincingly and masterfully portrayed by the charismatic Toby Webster.
I must confess at this point that I do feel churlish picking at the faults, which are mainly down to the book. For this production is really quite brilliant. Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout. So, hats off to a wonderful cast. ‘The Man’ mistaken for the second coming is indeed a shining star guiding us through the show. Robert Tripolino’s presence and soaring voice fills the auditorium, while his performance remains alluringly intimate. With a twitchy sensitivity that offsets his opportunistic and manipulative pragmatism Tripolino embodies the unpredictability of a man with nothing left to lose. Complemented (rather than supported – this is very much an ensemble piece) by such a strong cast we are steered away from the fault-lines. Lewis Cornay and Chrissie Bhima as the doomed, ‘born-to-run’ teens, Amos and Candy, are an electric duo, while Lloyd Gorman’s fierce yet foibled father figure is a masterful presence.
The musicianship is astounding, led by onstage musical director, Elliot Mackenzie (the manic snake preacher and minister) the ensemble is a dynamic band, shifting from whispering intimacy to orchestral storms while seamlessly swapping instruments with extraordinary sleight of hand. Andrew Exeter’s rich and evocative lighting add to the magic. “Whistle Down the Wind” may have had its fair share of detractors in the past, and it does have its weaknesses, but this revival on the whole highlights its strengths.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Whistle Down The Wind
The Watermill Theatre until 10th September
Previously reviewed at this venue: