Sunday, 31 July 2022

REVIEW: Whistle Down the Wind at the Watermill Theatre

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1996 musical Whistle Down the Wind represents an ambitious production to mount in the intimate space at the Watermill in Newbury but Director Tom Jackson Greaves has assembled an adult and junior cast that rises magnificently to the task. The first half is stupendous as they create believable well-defined characters, move with a beautifully choreographed ease, and deliver a succession of delightfully enjoyable songs. In the second half, the flaws in Lloyd Webber’s plot are accentuated and the actor-musicians seem to dominate the stage, frequently handing guitars to each other, making it feel overcrowded and detracting from the strong central performances. 

The musical is a complex interweaving of many themes as the original book is relocated from Northern England to the American Southern bible bashing states in 1959. Racial hatred and segregation, evangelical religious themes, grief over a parental death and teenage rebellion overwhelm a rural community when a fugitive takes refuge in a barn. There are hints of Lloyd Webber's earlier musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom of the Opera with its central relationship between the tattooed flawed man and the innocent young girl and the betrayal of his location by the community. The music is a mix of gospel, rock, and country but the best-known song in the show is “No matter what”, which became a 1998 hit for Boyzone.

Jackson Greaves and designer Simon Kenny deploy a host of imaginative and creative ideas to the production which is beautifully set and lit by Andrew Exeter in a wooden slatted barn with the musicians generally playing from the rear or side of the stage like a Greek chorus observing the action. The movement is cleverly choreographed using the space well including the side aisles. The dead Mother played by ballerina Stephanie Elstob adds powerful emotional dance to the storytelling. They introduce detailed small models to signal a change of location and shadow puppets to add to the imagery of love and isolation. Each scene opens with the sign that reads “You are never too lost to be saved” although the townsfolk may not follow that mantra, the children in their innocence do.

Indeed, the best scenes are those that contrast the young characters with their adult counterparts. On the night I went Isabelle Carroll was Brat and Huey Lockwood was Poor Baby and they were magnificent in every aspect of their performance singing sweetly, speaking with great clarity and some good comic timing. They are excellent in “I never get what I pray for” and “The Vow”. They were well supported by Mieke Brown, Hugo Parker-Farrell, Imogen Jermey and Katie McGall as the other children of the town, especially in “When Children rule the world” and in the show highlight that concludes Act 1 with the contrasting attitudes of adults and kids in “No matter what”.

The narrative is held together by a wonderful central performance by Lydia White as the teenage sister in a delightful, nuanced performance of unquestioning love, unmatched grief, and nervous energy. She touches our hearts in “If only”, we feel her fear in “Try not to be afraid” and see her reluctance to believe The Man (Robert Tripolino) in “ Nature of the Beast”. There is good support to from Lloyd Gorman as her father Boone, Lewis Conway as her friend Amos, Chrissie Bhima as Amos’s friend Candy and Toby Webster as the stern unfeeling Sheriff. The song “Tire tracks and broken hearts” between Amos and Candy is another very well-executed routine. 

The Watermill has once again produced a first-class production that pushes the limits of the budgets and the tiny space with an excellent cast of talented actors and musicians, some wonderfully creative moments of dance and choreography and an extraordinary team of young performers who with the exquisite lighting bring this dark haunting evocative musical to life in a moving and engaging way. Definitely worth the trip down the M4 to see this in its run until 10th September.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row G | Price of Ticket: £35

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