Should I feel bad about not sobbing my heart out at Howard Goodall’s elegant musical version – to book and lyrics by Stephen Clark – of Erich Segal’s Love Story? Several people around me were, hopefully for the right reasons. It’s certainly a hammer blow when Emma Williams' Jenny gets her death sentence, even if you know that it’s coming.

But her “preppy hockey jock” husband Oliver (a rather too willowy Michael Xavier) has denied her the most important part of her life, her music, and he’s a character hard not to dislike intensely. I’m not sure that, in tampering – or in not tampering enough -- with the famous 1970 movie, the adapters haven’t drained it of tragic validity. It’s still just a weepie.

Goodall’s music, though, is always interesting, often beautiful, especially at the moment when Jenny (the truly scrumptious Williams is maturing impressively beyond Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as both actress and singer) plays a version of the Oscar-winning theme tune against which a delicately haunting item is sung in choral descant.

The framing epitaph is lovely writing, too, and “I will play nocturnes” – neatly encapsulating Goodall’s own catholicity of taste: Jenny’s unborn children will have Bach and Beatles, and both Joplins, Janis and Scott – is the poignant centre of a show about the meaning of unconditional love.

Rachel Kavanaugh’s austere production on an all-white design by Peter McKintosh – whose three Corinthian pillars somehow conjure Pearl and Dean as readily as pearly gates – transfers well from the Minerva in Chichester. There’s certainly a lot more emotional oomph about it now.

RSC big guy Richard Cordery and Jan Hartley are now playing Oliver’s parents with totally understandable stoicism: the real “love story” between father and son feels far too sketchy, and Cordery tries to compensate with a long, lingering hand on boy’s shoulder at the end. Oliver’s rebelliousness has seemed trite and pathetic. He never deserved Jenny in the first place.

We’re spared, thank heavens, “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But “love isn’t what you feel, it’s what you do,” seems somehow equally sententious. The lively “pasta” song makes some amends, though it’s less witty than it thinks it is, and Peter Polycarpou brings almost too much love to bear in his portrait of Jenny’s widowed father.

This is a high-calibre chamber musical, all right, with a top skill factor in both writing and onstage musicianship (piano, guitar and string quintet); then just when it’s nearly enough, it plummets into bathos and easily resistible, tear-jerking manipulation.

- Michael Coveney


Please note: This FOUR-STAR review is from the production's run at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester in June, 2010.

It's 40 years since Erich Segal's monster hit novel and Hollywood film, 40 years since we first learned that love meant never having to say you're sorry - so the musical version has been a long time coming.

It's still astounding that it proved so successful. The story of Oliver, a rich Harvard graduate, falling in love with Jenny, an Italian-American girl from the wrong side of the tracks with whom he lives a happy married life until she's stricken with leukaemia, is replete with cliché.

It's to the credit of Stephen Clark, responsible for the book, that he doesn't dwell too long on Jenny's terminal illness and subsequent death. It would have been tempting to ladle on the mawkishness, but instead he concentrates as much on the relationships between the central characters and their respective fathers as on their marriage. Oliver’s troubled relationship with his patrician father – a good, understated performance from Rob Edwards – compares starkly with Jenny’s emotional deli-owning Phil.

Michael Xavier as Oliver brings just the right touch of haughtiness and naivete to the character. Emma Williams isn’t quite as believable as Jenny - she sounds a bit too, well, nice, and struggles to bring the right touch of stringency to the role - but she sings beautifully.

Howard Goodall's score, well played by a string sextet and piano, is a bit weak on standout tunes, although the opening and closing number, “What Can You Say?” has a haunting melody and there's an exuberant song about pasta which manages to rhyme spaghetti with Donizetti and gnocchi with rocky.

Rachel Kavanaugh's production is as slick as it can be. Despite some rapid scene changes, the action is telescoped into 105 minutes without an interval, a perfect bite-sized piece of theatre. 

I came expecting to hate it, but it’s wittily written and while the music score isn’t a world-beater (a lot of songs are reprised and, apart from the aforementioned Pasta Song, there’s little contrast between the numbers) it’s movingly scored. At a time when the word 'musical' seems synonymous with a montage of rock songs held together by a paper-thin plot, this clever chamber piece deserves a wider hearing.

- Maxwell Cooter