Whistle Down the Wind
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Jim Steinman
society/company: Northampton Musical Theatre Company (directory)
performance date: 30 Oct 2012
venue: Cripps Hall Theatre, Northampton School for Boys, Northampton.
reviewer/s: Paul Johnson (Sardines review)
Whistle Down the Wind is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newest olive branches to the amateur theatre sector with full rights now available to societies all over the UK. With Really Useful Group’s ‘Holy Grail’ such as Joseph, Phantom of the Opera and Cats still out of bounds and currently restricted to youth groups, schools and colleges, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. However, like RUG’s most recent offering to amateurs The Boys in the Photograph (formally The Beautiful Game) Whistle Down the Wind was not commercially successful when lined up for Broadway and the West End.
In fact, the show’s 1997 Broadway opening was completely cancelled and its West End run, which premiered a year later, ran for just thirty months before calling time. More successfully, Bill Kenwright then heavily re-worked the show for a couple of UK tours; firstly in 2001 and again in 2010 (starring Jonathan Ansell). So it’s going to be very interesting to see how the production fairs in the hands of the amateur community. Was Whistle’s brief encounter with the mass market undeserved, or has the amateur world been thrown a bone that’s not worth biting?
In an age when audiences are starting to grow a little tired of the usual pot-boilers, quality new musicals are highly sought after by operatic societies. And West End success or failure certainly doesn’t mean the writing is on the wall. The Madness musical, Our House, is testament to this; having only lasted ten months in London, the show has become one of the most popular among amateur groups today.
This was Sardines’ first visit to Northampton Musical Theatre Company, a musical group with a long history dating back to 1898 and now producing its shows in the modern and well-equipped theatre in ‘The Cripps Hall’ part of Northampton School for Boys. Obviously, we were keen to assess whether Lloyd Webber’s musical was strong enough to last on the amateur circuit. However, another incentive for our long drive up the M1, apart from the fact that we had yet to see NMTC perform, was that for Whistle Down the Wind the East Midlands society had enlisted the directorial talents of none other than NODA’s Chief Executive, Tony Gibbs.
Based on the 1961 film written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Billy Liar) set in Lancashire and starring a young Hayley Mills and Alan Bates, Whistle Down the Wind is about a group of children that discover a fugitive hiding in their barn. When they ask the man who he is, he simply replies “Jesus Christ” before collapsing. The children, who all attend Sunday School believe they have indeed met the Son of God and vow to protect him, hiding him from the authorities. In a story comparing the innocence of children with the prejudices of adult society we see its effect on the new curious relationship between The Man, the children and especially fifteen-year-old Swallow.
Unfortunately, Lloyd Webber, for commercial reasons decided to relocate the story to the American Deep South to a place where fearsome preachers scream their fiery religious sermons at their congregation, and a pitchfork isn’t seen as just a farming tool but a menacing weapon with which to shout and scream in crowds and witch-hunts. When you think that this show didn’t even make it to Broadway, one can’t help but wonder if this was indeed a mistake and one that may hinder the production’s success in the UK.
In a score requiring strong soloists from children and adults alike as well as a highly disciplined ensemble, NMTC wes musically easily up to the job. Gibbs’ casting of Ian Stark as The Man was inspired and spot-on. It was a real treat to watch this talented tenor perform handling Lloyd Webber’s mix of pop and rock so naturally. Opposite Stark was a conveniently young-looking Samantha Pollitt, as Swallow, in her first lead role for the society. Looking ten years her junior, Pollitt brought plenty of naivety to the role which was reflected in her chemistry with Swallow’s younger brother and sister as well as the rest of the children’s ensemble.
With two groups of seventeen children performing throughout the run, NMTC’s child-licensing team obviously had their work cut out, but it was worth it, with the children’s scenes arguably the most entertaining of the evening. ‘The Hurricanes’ group I saw were all well-rehearsed and focused – in my experience children often learn everyone else’s lines on top of their own, without even trying! Megan Timlin (Brat) and Harrison Willson (Poor Baby) deserve plenty of praise for their respective roles as Swallow’s younger siblings. And of course, the children’s ensemble also got to sing two of the show’s most popular numbers, When Children Rule the World and No Matter What, which went on to became one of Boyzone’s most memorable hits.
I felt that the show’s two subplots unfortunately failed to ignite the audience’s interest in the same way the children and their ‘man in the barn’ did. It is possible this is partly down to a lack of creative direction but I really suspect it is inevitably a flaw of the show itself rather than its performers. As Amos and Candy, the young couple desperate to leave town, Tom Pinny and Lillian Thorn were excellent in their respective performances. But I didn’t understand why they were there, if not just to fill out the show. Because of this I found myself somewhat uninterested in their storyline (despite the remarkable vintage Harley Davidson the company managed to borrow the use of). The second subplot – which does of course meet up with the main storyline eventually, as they always do – concerns the religious undertone of the townsfolk in the form of revival meetings and ‘dancing with snakes’.
Hats off to the ensemble (and NMTC’s musical team: Graham Tear, MD and Mark Prescott, Assist’ MD) who had a very tricky score to master with Lloyd Webber’s myriad of clashing harmonies and contrasting melodies. And the fifteen-strong orchestra also deserves a mention for providing a full and faultless accompaniment throughout the evening complementing the soloists and chorus perfectly.
Performing on such a vast stage, I liked Gibbs’ decision to use a minimalistic set instead relying on lighting and the cast to add atmosphere to each scene although I’m not sure lighting up the upstage syc in smaller scenes helped with the idea, as this really just succeeded in accentuating the empty space not being used. A completely dark stage with a single lit area, such as in the barn scene, would perhaps focus the audience’s attention in a more intimate way. Having said that, the aforementioned barn and the other sets, such as the family home, were well-designed and effective.
Taking on a full-blown musical such as this is not easy, and when you then also add in the children factor you run the risk of a nervous breakdown. However, I’m reliably informed NODA’s CEO is still in one piece despite several late nights leading up to opening night and is expected back to work Monday morning. It’s of course nice to know that the national association is getting its fingers dirty on the front line where it matters.
In summary, I would say this was a good production of an average show that will appeal mainly due to the casting-children-appeal and three or four memorable numbers, but in the grand scheme of things I don’t see Whistle Down the Wind setting the amateur world
But, a very entertaining show from a very capable society - all in the safe and reliable hands of Mr. Gibbs!