Palace Theatre, London W1
Opened 27 March, 2006

With the closure of The Woman In White after a mere 17 months, producer Bill Kenwright has drafted in this earlier work to fill the Palace Theatre until Eric Idle’s Spamalot begins previewing. As a serendipitous result, one Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in which a train hurtles out of a tunnel at a climactic moment has been replaced by another (and neither of them Starlight Express).

On its West End premiere in 1998, Alastair Macaulay on this page described the musical adaptation of Mary Hayley Bell’s novel and Bryan Forbes’ 1961 film as “entirely harmless and almost entirely uninteresting”. It’s not an unfair verdict. On this, my first exposure to the show, I was intrigued to hear Lloyd Webber rising to the challenge implicitly posed by his lyricist Jim Steinman, the creator of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell and sundry other rock arias. Transposing Bell’s story from England to 1959 Louisiana allows the writers to hitch a ride on the first flush of rock ‘n’ roll and the archetypal teen rebellion associated with it. The Lloyd Webber/Steinman partnership comes good on numbers such as “A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing To Waste”, all burning rubber and hormones, sounding somewhere between Springsteen and Wagner albeit with added monosodium glutamate. Most of the time, though, it’s the score that sets the emotional pace, a pace which never breaks sweat. And a story in which a teenage girl in the Bible Belt (Claire Marlowe, too old to play such innocence convincingly) finds a murderer hiding in her barn (Tim Rogers, all Musical-Theatre Tragic Hero) and mistakes him for Jesus Christ really needs some emotional intensity in the telling, not mere button-pushing.

Kenwright’s direction doesn’t help: economical at best, it seems to consist principally of getting adult and child actors to hit their physical and emotional marks at the right moments. Henry Metcalfe’s choreography is similarly journeyman. Kenwright famously cannot bear to see a theatre left “dark”, which I presume explains this betwixt-and-between piece of scheduling. I can detect no other rationale behind the decision to take a show which was deliberately premiered in the medium-sized Aldwych Theatre and revive it in the considerably larger Palace, a venue awash with gilt plasterwork and wholly at odds with Paul Farnsworth’s timber-and-big-sky design. Still, entirely harmless.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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