Standing in the foyer of the Palace Theatre earlier this week, watching a largely geriatric crowd slowly assembling for that evening's performance of The Woman in White, I thought I'd arrived at the Tory party conference by mistake. I almost expected Michael Howard and Sandra to glide past en route to the stalls shaking the hands of the party faithful freshly up from Surrey and Weybridge.
Women in sensible dark trouser-suits sported little silk scarves and men with grey hair, no bottoms and double vented jackets looked like pale imitations of their hero, the late lothario Alan Clark. The Brits were supplemented by hordes of ageing Americans, clutching Burberry carrier bags and maps of London, clinging to their raincoats and guidebooks. This is not a chic crowd, unless you count Jonathan Powell, former head of drama at the BBC, a few rows back.
The Woman in White opened while I was walking in the desert in central Australia and so I missed the inevitable score-settling as critics sought to remind Andrew Lloyd Webber that he may have amassed a fortune from all those past hits, but they wield the true power. I missed our Queen-in-waiting, Camilla, and her consort gracing the charity premiere, and the sight of Terry Wogan arriving late. I was spared all the pundits, from Denise Van Outen to Fern Britton, opining on daytime telly sofas and I didn't read the inevitable slagging off by Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - whose prose has become rather testosterone-filled since he gave up alcohol.
Of course, any project emanating from Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Group is guaranteed to excite praise and loathing in equal measure. Even when the poor man produces something successful, you can be sure the carpers will turn to those over-worked phrases "derivative" and "old-fashioned" when describing his input. It's as predictable as denouncing the show's director, Trevor Nunn as money-grabbing or over-worked.
Reading between the lines, even when critics praise this production, from the design to the singing, they try to wiggle out of saluting Mr Lloyd Webber himself. It's definitely seen as politically incorrect to align oneself with his particular brand of operatic musical theatre, the equivalent to admitting you eat Wagon Wheels or enjoyed reading The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. Frankly, my dears, it's just so passé and ultra-naff. You might as well say you paid £50 to see Elton John live last summer, along with all those taxi drivers and their wives.
It's not something we over-educated Indy people willingly want to own up to; it's so much more "relevant" to pop along to the National and enthuse about David Hare's latest worthy offering on Iraq. If you want to drop a theatrical offering at a dinner party near you, far better to say you saw Guantanamo Bay when it was at the Tricycle or Festen at the Almeida.
But hang on a minute - who else but Lloyd Webber would spend four years and £4m trying to turn a fiendishly complicated Victorian gothic novel into family entertainment? Who in their right minds would contemplate creating yet another musical when they've had a string of expensive flops and their biggest hit, Phantom of the Opera was born back in 1986? Surely this man deserves a medal, not another knock-back. Can we only praise musical theatre if it was written by a yank - from Sondheim to Rogers and Hammerstein?
Although Guantanamo Bay transferred to New York and has been graced by a guest appearance this week by Desmond Tutu, it's about as ground-breaking as an episode of The Archers. I applaud the message it rams home, but the production takes the form of a well acted lecture, no more innovative than that. And it tells you what you already know. Festen - well, saved by Ian McNeil's design, but like watching a slow version of the movie. Shocking? Pull the other leg.
Musical theatre is expensive, irrelevant and high risk - look at the appalling reviews some critics dished out yesterday to the new version of Brighton Rock with tunes. According to this paper, it's not worth the price of a deck chair. But when musical theatre works, it rewards you big time, with an emotional impact unrivalled in any other medium. Which is why, from the appalling Bat Boy to the latest version of Sweeney Todd, London theatres play host to so much of it.
Mr Lloyd Webber is a thin-skinned, prickly man; quick to be offended, shy, and notoriously driven. He is also quite, quite mad and difficult - in this respect very like Sir Elton John, a man for whom the word "sensible" has no meaning whatsoever.
Elton couldn't give a toss about what fashionable people thought when he took himself off to Las Vegas and let the outrageous director David LeChapelle create a show featuring footage of Pamela Anderson pole dancing, as well as a huge inflatable pair of lactating breasts made from pink rubber. With his diatribe about Madonna's lack of ability to sing live, Elton has once again dared to say what most of the craven music press are too spineless to admit - that pop's top female icon is a con. But, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton reads his reviews and despairs, no matter what he may say in public. He deeply resents being labelled as boring and dreary for not dropping dead or retiring.
Woman in White presents all sorts of problems for critics anxious to cut Lloyd Webber down to size - for a start the design, by William Dudley, is quite brilliant, if a little frenetic for some tastes. It is a world-class piece of work using the very latest technology. The singing, from absolutely everyone, is superb. Michael Crawford, a living legend, offers a tour de force, even if the character of Count Fosco seems taken from Die Fledermaus or another operetta and Crawford himself seems to be the embodiment of Phantom 2 hiding behind a weird pink rubber meringue where his face should be. Maria Friedman is heart-rending as the plain half-sister left on the shelf, and the two thin heroines are astonishingly pretty and pre-Raphaelite.
Faced with this rack of plusses, John Gross in the Sunday Telegraph called it an "inferior adaptation" and added patronisingly "with a pleasant and occasionally surprising score". The Evening Standard raged: "so old-fashioned it deserves to be stuffed and displayed in a museum for deceased musicals", while this paper opined "we're a long way from the brilliance of Sweeney Todd". The Financial Times whinged "not many take-home tunes" and even the Mail moaned "you have to work for it, but it's worth it."
Of course there are things that work better than others: the villagers have a mad Wicker Man moment when they sing a harvest festival-type chant and there's a wonderfully bleak version of "The Holly and the Ivy", sung by a little girl which almost seems like a homage to Benjamin Britten. Crawford brings the house down with a comic turn featuring a rat - a theatrical first, I believe. But, if you ask my opinion, it's an evening well spent.
It's more enthralling than any version of Carousel with it's clunky middle act, for a start. If you can forget about the grim audience, ignore the snooty critics, and empty your mind of pre-conceptions, you'll be hugely entertained and not bored for an instant. It might be unfashionable to say it, but three cheers for Andrew Lloyd Webber, warts and all. And, by the way, I eat Wagon Wheels.