Whistle Down The Wind, Palace Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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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 attempts to give the show a second wind in the West End. On the evidence of this much lower-tech but 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' exquisite black-and-white film) from its setting in bleak rural Lancashire and transplanted it to 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 about a killer on the loose, this alteration introduces a current of unconscious sexual attraction to her dealings with the Man, strikingly played by the rugged Tim Rogers.

It's a rare and intriguing musical where, on balance, you would rather 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" - 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.

The show exploits the idea of infantile innocence more shamelessly than the convict ever does. I loved Kenwright's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Not even he, though, can breathe freshness into these cloying kiddie ensemble numbers.

To 12 August (0870 145 1163)

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