Musical youth

Those of us who remember the film do so in detail, frame by grainy black-and-white frame. There's Hayley Mills and that scene-stealing little lad, Alan Barnes, as her brother Charles. And there's Alan Bates, the stranger in the barn, the murderer on the run, the man they think is Jesus. But what really touches us in Mary Hayley Bell's enchanting story is the innocence of childhood, the wonder of discovery, the capacity for giving, loving, and believing, for keeping faith; and the growing pains th at go with it. What could possibly be added to Whistle Down the Wind that might touch us still more? Music?

The National Youth Music Theatre plainly thought so when Russell Labey (adaptor and director) and Richard Taylor (co-adaptor, music and lyrics) presented the idea to them. Their finished product has been popping up around the country now for some two years, and it's back in London for a brief season at the Riverside Studios.

If you have even the remotest interest in music theatre, don't miss it. Taylor's score represents the most auspicious promise of things to come since Howard Goodall's The Hired Man burst upon the British musicals scene.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Taylor's achievement (quite apart from the fact that he displays equal prowess as both composer and lyricist) is the way in which he has kept faith in the simple truths of Mary Hayley Bell's novel. He never overburdens it. His touch is sure and supremely economical. He opens with the pure, clear sound of a lone child's voice in the dark: "Behold! For the day of the Lord will come/ Like a thief in the night." Straightaway he places us in the hearts and minds of the children. Song (sometimes a mere phrase or two of music) emerges naturally, eloquently, from the spoken word: no clunking cues, just the word made music. Taylor's melodic lines soar so readily, and his scoring (for string quartet, flute, horn, percussion and keyboards) throws up such ravishing harmonic progressions, it's as if Ravel has been looking over his shoulder.

Stephen Sondheim is plainly another role model - and, in the rhythmic urgency of his word-setting, Taylor has perhaps picked up on a few too many of the master's nervous tics. But even Sondheim would applaud the masterly way in which he juxtaposes the hymnic title chorus with the moving moment where Cathy (an affecting Helen Power) gives her "Jesus" a picture of himself for Christmas. Or the scene where we're watching the parents watching the children's nativity play, and their "thinking aloud" brilliantly counterpoints both the play itself and the kids' conclusion that they really "may as well be on Mars". That one scene speaks volumes about children and their elders and it is a tribute to the skills and energy of this excellent company (maximum age 19) that they suspend disbelief so convincingly. In the final scene (and you're a stronger man than I if you are not sniffing back the tears at this point), the children, cordoned protectively around the barn, hurl out their defiant chorale against hysterical shouts from the police and parents.

Taylor re-deploys his strongest melodic ideas to such effect as to make even Andrew Lloyd Webber blanch. Ironically (for he financially supports National Youth Music Theatre), Sir Andrew has announced his own rock-musical film version of Whistle Down theWind. Too late. It's been done.

n To 31 Dec, Riverside Studios, Crisp Rd, Hammersmith, London W6 (081-563 0331)