Minerva Studio, Chichester
Opened 7 June, 2010

The 1970 movie of Love Story was nominated for seven Oscars, but won only one, for Francis Lai’s score. Obviously any musical version is going to be aware of that shadow. Howard Goodall acknowledges it cleverly by making one number an explicit variation on Lai’s main theme. Goodall’s score (played here by a piano-and-strings septet) is of the quality and character one expects from him: accomplished and thoughtful, avoiding standard contemporary-musical plangent melodic progressions, somehow identifiably English yet not so much as to clash with the story’s American setting.

A decision was clearly taken early on that this version would be about the obvious love story, the one between preppy Oliver and feisty Jenny at Harvard and thereafter in the late 1960s until her death at 25 from leukaemia, rather than the more subtextual parallel in Erich Segal’s screenplay and novelisation, the tale of Oliver and his father rediscovering their own filial/parental love. Pretty much all we see here is Oliver needling his father, who responds with the expected patrician ire; the complexity and development of their relationship is scarcely hinted at beyond a discreet, wordless show of reconciliation in the show’s closing moments. Stephen Clark’s book is far better at the banter between the lovers than at any emotional profundity. It is also significantly better than his lyrics, which continue to clatter like clockwork model trains towards predictable rhymes much like his earlier libretti for The Far Pavilions and the West End production of Zorro. The exception is the near-list song “Nocturnes”, in which Jenny imagines the eclectic range of music she will play to her future children, from Coltrane to Callas. Emma Williams, who has not previously impressed me overmuch, is immensely appealing as Jenny, a mischievous Italo-American sprite until the illness strikes. Michael Xavier is efficient but unsensational as Oliver, and Peter Polycarpou (now looking uncannily like David Suchet) provides as solid a foundation as ever as Jenny’s father.

The simplification of story cannot be for reasons of brevity: the show runs at almost exactly the same 99-minute length as the film. The result is that the musical, although deftly staged by Rachel Kavanaugh, does not really stand in its own right, but remains a comment on the original. Still, I don’t think this Love Story ever has to say it’s sorry.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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