Whistle Down The Wind, Palace Theatre, London

Not even Kenwright can breathe life into this melodrama
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The Independent Culture

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Whistle Down the Wind ran out of puff at the box office in January 2001 after only two-and-a-half years. Sporting his director's as well as his producer's hat, Bill Kenwright now wants to give the show a second wind in the West End.

His production takes up residence at the Palace Theatre, which happens to be the venue just vacated by Lloyd Webber's latest commercial disappointment, The Woman in White. On the evidence of this simpler, much lower-tech - but clearly heartfelt - revival, are we guilty of underestimating Whistle Down the Wind?

The short answer is no. Lloyd Webber and his lyricist Jim Steinman have uprooted Mary Hayley Bell's novel (made famous by Bryan Forbes's exquisite black-and-white movie) from its setting in bleak rural Lancashire and transplanted it in the Bible-belt of late 1950s Louisiana where bigots can't see a tub without thumping it and where faith has to be proved by wrestling with snakes.

The shift means that Lloyd Webber can indulge his penchant for pastiche - the lively, if synthetic-sounding, score draws on gospel, soul, rock'n'roll, and revivalist chorale as well as the usual pop-opera. But it also means that a touching, achingly restrained story is jacked up into an overheated melodrama.

In the movie, the Hayley Mills character, who finds an escaped murderer in the barn and mistakes him for Jesus, is a child and the strength of her feelings towards this figure has a pre-sexual innocence. In the musical, Swallow (affectingly sung here by the likeable but bland Claire Marlowe) is a motherless adolescent. As well as making her seem simple-minded in not connecting the stranger with the radio announcements of a killer on the loose, this alteration introduces a current of unconscious sexual attraction into her response to the generically named The Man, strikingly played by the rugged, hunky Tim Rogers.

The situation has a deal of dramatic potential. It's a rare and intriguing musical where, on balance, you would rather that the leading lady and the leading man did not get it together. But though there are some good numbers along the way - particularly "The Nature of the Beast", sung with savage desperation by Rogers and "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste, an emotionally intricate trio with the two leads and some alternative male love interest - the show blows it. We want Swallow to grow up - to realise the truth and still feel complicated love for the wronged man. Instead, she clings to her faith that he's Jesus, and the musical goes so far as to suggest that she may even be right.

But idealistic adulthood is not an option for this character in a show which, it could be argued, exploits the idea of innocence more shamelessly than the convict ever does. I loved Kenwright's enchanting production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Not even he, though, can breathe an unforced freshness of spirit into the kiddie ensemble numbers. There's a gift-giving sequence where The Man is presented with a plastic flower because it will never die. Watching this piece, you reckon that some plastic things are not built to last.

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