Review: The Woman in White (Charing Cross Theatre)

With a revised score, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical receives its first London production since its 2004 West End premiere

The tale of a plausible fellow who preys on young girls, this first major revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s gothic romance is unhappily timely if not happily timed. Today’s headlines add a startling patina to a musical that’s already powerful enough to disturb. It’s based on the 19th-century mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, a master of atmospheric fiction who darkened his melodrama with a genuine frisson of horror.

First staged at the imposing Palace Theatre in designer William Dudley’s frankly catastrophic video environment, The Woman in White was always an intimate musical trapped in an overblown production by Trevor Nunn. Now, shorn of its excess and trimmed of its narrative flab, it can be seen for what it is: an effective show with the wherewithal to become a popular classic.

Dashing young Walter Hartright (Ashley Stilburn, excellent) takes up the post of art tutor to two unmarried sisters on a country estate, both of whom fancy the pants off him. But he is troubled by the memory of a young woman dressed in white whom he encountered shortly before arriving. Who is she? Thereby hangs an elaborate tale.

Despite some well-judged tweaking this musical dramatisation remains flawed, especially in the narrative flow of act one. The first 40 minutes of Charlotte Jones’s book pass with no sign of an antagonist to inject peril; as for David Zippel’s lyrics, with so much exposition to squeeze into the opening section his wit is held at bay until the arrival of some decent villains.

Chris Peluso plays the wicked Sir Percival Glyde, his slithy surname a gift to the rhyming dictionary, and a smooth-talking blackguard he is. Only his dodgy friend Count Fosco matches him in the scoundrel stakes, but he at least has a certain Italian charm – and the charismatic Greg Castiglioni, unencumbered by the original production’s fat suit, plays him more as a lothario than a pervy creep. He dispatches his showstopper, "You Can Get Away With Anything", with equal measures of brio and glee.

Thom Southerland‘s economical staging is a tonic: it purrs along confidently and reclaims the piece as a work for a small theatre. The director exploits his claustrophobic stage as a place of mystery and fear, thanks in no small measure to Morgan Large’s elegant conceal/reveal designs and Rick Fisher’s ultra-moody lighting. Southerland also achieves two feats that eluded Nunn in 2003: he peppers the show with some well-earned (and much-needed) laughs, and he treats each of the three female leads to a clearly defined individuality.

Carolyn Maitland as Marian Halcombe shoulders the lion’s share of the musical’s most dramatic songs, and she did heroic work on opening night despite singing through a nasty cold. She, together with the radiant Anna O’Byrne as Laura and Sophie Reeves as the ghostly Anne, luxuriated in Lloyd Webber’s most romantic score this side of the Parisian sewers. With Anthony Cable an irascible Mr Fairlie and the company fleshed out by a small but expert ensemble, the production has a professional sheen and consistently turns the low-tech environment to its advantage.

Simon Holt and a crack unseen band delivers David Cullen’s orchestrations with the appropriate blend of tension and lyricism, and the excision of scenes like "Lammastide" and "Marian’s Dream" only enhances the show’s momentum – and thus its excitement. In its chilling way The Woman in White is the perfect Christmas treat.

The Woman in White runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 10 February 2018.

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