Whistle Down the Wind Everyman, Cheltenham


First there was the book. Then there was the film, which shot Hayley Mills to golden-ringletted stardom. And now there is the musical. In fact, now there are the musicals, although Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Up the Wind has faded from view after going belly up in America's hinterland before it could reach the bright lights of Broadway. However, four years after it was premiered by the National Youth Music Theatre, Richard Taylor's Whistle Down the Wind gets its professional debut in Cheltenham.

The story concerns three children in a Lancashire village who, upon discovering a man in their barn, conclude that he is Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, a murderer has escaped from a nearby jail. So is the man: a) the Messiah, b) the errant con, or - if you want to be really tricksy - c) both? By 'eck, it's a mystery.

Adapting this story for the stage presents one obvious challenge. The vast majority of the cast - three leads and a host of others - need to be children. This is quite a burden to lay on pre-pubescent shoulders. One option is to slip an adult ringer into the gruelling lead part of Cathy, and in this production, Rebecca Rainsford's appearance and performance as a 12-year-old are utterly convincing, contradicted only by her rather more mature photograph in the programme. However, the remainder are all genuine roller-blade-loving juveniles, and luckily the Everyman seems to have found a bottomless supply of very fine child actors indeed. They cope well with the script - the music, on the other hand, is quite a different matter.

Taylor clearly shares Stephen Sondheim's well-publicised abhorrence for "hummable" melodies, and so incorporates the post-atonal jumps and clashes which proclaim that this is "serious music". The show is packed with numbers that might easily have come from the less melodic parts of Sondheim's oeuvre (although I fear they lack Sondheim's cleverness). Unfortunately, this constitutes a challenge which is - quite understandably - rather beyond the capabilities of the young perfomers (they're only 10, for heaven's sake!), resulting in substantially more bum notes than one would hope to hear in a professional production. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that the adults fare little better, suggesting that the score may be unsingable: something of a handicap in a musical.

It is hard to tell at whom this show is aimed. Although it is a show with children, it is not necessarily a show for children. The action level is quite high, but there's little here to set young hearts racing or Junior Hush Puppies tapping. Meanwhile adults, while able to marvel pleasantly at how well the little darlings act, are offered little more than clumsy allegory and a story which, although it made a nice, atmospheric little movie, may be too insubstantial to survive being enlarged on to the broad canvas of the musical stage.

Emerging into the cool night air, it is not the unhummable tunes that fill the brain. Nor is it the deeper ponderings of faith and belief. Instead, it is a question: how did they find a flock of under-10s in bijou Cheltenham who can rattle off such convincing Lancashire accents? Now there's a mystery.

Booking: 01242 572573

Toby O'Connor Morse

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