Note: The cast for this production has changed since the writing of this review. For current cast details, please see the listing entry. If you have seen the current cast and would like to send in your comments for posting on this page, please email us.
“We re long overdue for a miracle, ain t we?” asks one of the children in Andrew Lloyd Webber sWhistle Down the Wind. The composer has doubtless asked himself the same question. Although he has pride of place on both sides of the Atlantic for the longest-running musicals, his track record with more recent shows, like Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, has been less impressive. Not since Phantom of the Opera has Lloyd Webber had a really big, new hit. Could Whistle be the miracle he needs? Could be, could be.
Whistle is based on the Mary Hayley Bell novel about a group of children who find a man in their barn and believe he s Jesus Christ. The story is transported from rural England to backwoods Louisiana and, aside from a few outrageous American accents, the new setting works well, the tension heightened by Southern racism and small-town oppression.
The pace of the show is a little slow to begin with but quickly picks up speed when Whistle's gang of children take over. There hasn t been such a showcase for West End prodigies since the curtain fell on Oliver! and these young stars rise to the challenge jubilantly. Theirs are by far the best scenes with catchy, warm-hearted tunes like “I Never Get What I Pray For” and “When Children Rule the World”.
Their adult co-stars are much more dour, as the script calls for. Peter J Davison s split-level set is used to good effect to highlight the differences between the stark and threatening world of the cynical adults and the sun-soaked, hopeful world of the child believers. Sadly, Lloyd Webber and director Gale Edwards squander an opportunity for a real show-down between the two. By the end of the night, you re really craving the child-ruled world, but the kids never get their chance to fight for it.
The most stirring kid-free scenes are between The Man (Marcus Lovett) and girl-woman Swallow (Lottie Mayor) who wants desperately to believe he is the messiah who will bring her dead mother back to life. What starts as innocent is infused with a sexual electricity in the second act which The Man struggles touchingly to resist. The two combined, with intermittent help from George Micheal lookalike Amos (Dean Collinson), sure can belt out a tormented love song.
Whistle Down the Wind is a good, solid musical. It has plenty of old Lloyd Webber echoes - including a mob hunt scene eerily reminiscent of Phantom - but also manages to cover new ground. One particularly welcome change to standard Lloyd Webber fare is the spoken word. Perhaps he s finally realised how deeply annoying the rock operatic format can be? Now that is a miracle.
Swallow is a kid of indeterminate age, growing up in small-town Louisiana in the 1950s. Motherless trailer-trash, she does her best to help her grieving pa with the younger kids - Brat and Poor Baby. More than anything, Swallow wants her ma back. When a wounded man is found hiding out in the family barn, Swallow is convinced he s Jesus. And so are the rest of the town s children who flock to The Man s side. Meantime, the adult folks learn that an escaped killer is in their midst - though they don t know how close - and the town becomes divided along age-lines.
And so the drama of Whistle Down the Wind is well set up, with the aid of some enjoyable lyrics from Jim Steinman. The children's songs are light and bright, most notably the oh-so-catchy 'When Children Rule The World.' Meanwhile, the adults darkly lament the corruption of their once 'Safe Haven.' Act One comes to a gripping climax with the stage split in two: the children and The Man bathed in light below; above them, the adults arming themselves for the fight with torches and guns.
Sadly, the drama and tension unwind apace in Act Two. Where the first act is subtle, intriguing and affecting, the second is trite, repetitive and disappointing. There are few surprises in the plot and little character development. Amos may appear dangerous and brooding, but his role in the action is anything but. And, talking of skimming the surface, compare the characterisation of Candy to say Mimi in Rent.
Where the show goes most right is with Swallow, played with angelic grace by Lottie Mayor. And where the show goes most wrong is with The Man. This isn't the fault of hunky Broadway export Marcus Lovett, who can do brooding, anguished and then some. Unfortunately, his character just fizzles out. What has the appearance of The Man told us about life, the universe or anything? And where is the confrontation with the townspeople we've been waiting for?
Ultimately, Whistle feels like a piece that got too complicated for its creators. It's disappointing that, after a promising start and exemplary staging, it takes its own 'off ramp exit' in Act Two.
Maybe it's laziness - certainly too many songs are repeated as the show goes on. That's fine if you want the audience whistling the tunes as they leave the theatre, but not so good if you'd like them to remember the story.