You're walking down a deserted moonlit road when Andrew Lloyd Webber springs out before you, dressed all in white and babbling about "my secret, my precious secret". The sight chills you to the marrow and yet stirs you to compassion. He must mean the precious secret, which has eluded him lately, of writing a mega-smash hit.
How's that for a viable scenario? In fact (with certain adjustments) Wilkie Collins had the idea first in The Woman in White, the Victorian novel which Lloyd Webber has converted into a £4m musical with the aid of Charlotte Jones, who did the nifty adaptation, and the lyricist David Zippel. In this version, the fateful meeting with the eponymous woman is shifted from London to a misty Cumberland railway station where the hero Walter Hartwright (Martin Crewes) is stranded waiting for transport. Lloyd Webber's music and Trevor Nunn's fluent production, with its dizzying whirl of video projections, impart an authentic spookiness to the encounter. The mouth of the tunnel looms towards us and disgorges the Woman (Angela Christian). She proclaims possession of the terrible Secret that drives Collins's complicated plot, involving switched bodies and an elaborate, seemingly flawless crime masterminded by Michael Crawford's bloated Italian, Count Fosco.
From the novel's mass of intricacies, Jones has fashioned a leaner plot, with some telling additions. It makes emotional sense that the plain resourceful sister Marian, sung with superb ardour by Maria Friedman, should nurse an unrequited passion for the hero who loves her beautiful half-sibling Laura. Indeed the song "All For Laura" where Marian questions whether there's been self-interest in her protectiveness towards Laura has genuine dramatic development as it moves into a resolve to be really strong on her behalf.
Lloyd Webber's score is at its best when most in the spirit of the story's weird Gothic overtones. At Laura's wedding to the caddish Sir Perceval (insipid Oliver Darley), there's a creepily atonal setting of "The Holly and the Ivy" while images of the church reel round. But we're a long way here from the brilliance of Sondheim's Victorian musical Sweeney Todd. Too many of the songs emit the generic pop-opera sound of Lloyd Webber-land. And for all Crawford's efforts to frisk up Fosco, the lyrics don't have enough comic lift, the cod-Italianate "You Can Get Away With Anything" being the nearest to something truly funny.
That said, Lloyd Webber seems more in his element here than in his last two comparative failures. I suspect The Woman In White will be haunting the West End for some time to come.