Palace Theatre, London W1
New cast opened 7 October, 2005

I can identify no specific instances of revision in Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical since its premiere a year ago, but in general Trevor Nunn's production now feels tighter and more narratively driven. This is, of course, essential when rendering onstage one of the most popular mystery novels of the 19th century, as drawing teacher Walter Hartright and his gentlewoman student Marian Halcombe set out to unravel the secrets of the eponymous woman and what she has to do with the Halcombe family and Marian's sinister brother-in-law Sir Percival Glyde.

One of the major flaws on the show's first unveiling was technical. Most of the set design is computer-generated, projected onto curved "flats" and cycloramas for each scene; last year, the movements of the images weren't quite in sync with those of the physical surfaces, leading to a repeated feeling of lurching as on a heavy sea swell. The two are now perfectly synchronised, but the question remains of why so many spectacular CGI swoops and pans are used anyway. One often reads that inexperienced stage writers structure their scenes as if for television or film, but this is the first instance I can recall where stage design does likewise, beginning each scene with an "establishing shot" as if taken from a dolly or even a helicopter. (At one point four or even five such sequences are included within a single scene.)

It is Wilkie Collins' original writing that propels the show rather than that of either Charlotte Jones (who fillets the 600-odd pages of the novel efficiently) or lyricist David Zippel: the game of "guess the rhyme" soon palls, as one always wins. Less than 48 hours on from my second visit, all I can recall of Lloyd Webber's score is a general impression of his usual high-romantic soaring and the occasional high-note pinnacle, but not a single tune.

Ruthie Henshall as Marian is appealing as ever, bringing a greater sense of verve and resolution than the role itself may contain; she is almost equalled by Alexandra Silber, who makes a magnificent debut as her sister Laura. Edward Petherbridge as their father is simply Edward Petherbridge, supplying his trademark range of quirks. The same can be said of Simon Callow as Count Fosco. He eschews the wild prosthetic jowls of his predecessors in the role, Michaels Crawford and Ball, using only a slightly exaggerated nose and a little padding, and makes up in immense brio what he lacks (sometimes sorely) in tunefulness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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