Sometimes Less is More

By Richard Barber

In 2004, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, The Woman In White, got the full West End treatment in a production directed by Trevor Nunn, starring Michael Crawford in an ill-fated fat suit (it made him sweat so much, he had to leave the cast) and all sorts of over-the- top video installations. The show ran for a respectable 19 months but underwhelmed most critics. The musical has now been revived on the tiny Charing Cross Theatre stage under Thom Southerland’s inventive direction and devoid of any big star names. And it works very much better.

Based on Wilkie Collins’s original book – widely touted as the first mystery novel – it is set in 1859 and stuffed to the gills with Victorian melodrama. It means that the claustrophobic confines of this bijou theatre add to rather than impede proceedings, driving the complicated narrative with real urgency.

Because make no mistake, this is a strong multi-layered story that demands our attention, rewarding the audience with a succession of thrills and spills via it's many plot twists. Marian and Laura, have hired the services of drawing teacher Walter Hartright  (Ashley Stillburn, excellent) with whom Laura immediately and inconveniently falls in love, given she’s engaged to snakelike Sir Percival Glyde (a suitably silver-tongued Chris Peluso). Glyde’s accomplice, the florid Count Fosco, is in cahoots with him to relieve Laura of her inheritance. But who is the mysterious woman in white (Sophie Reeves) who threatens to reveal secrets that will demolish this double-dealing house of cards?

Lloyd Webber’s score is at worst pleasant and sometimes hits the bull’s-eye, as with Walter and Laura’s lovely duet, I Believe My Heart, and Fosco’s show- stopping You Can Get Away With Anything, from which Greg Castiglioni extracts every last drop of juice. This is sung-through operetta for the most part, although I’d have welcomed a bit more spoken word. Given the convoluted plot, Charlotte Jones’s book could have helped a bit with the twists and turns in the labyrinthine story. As it is, too much exposition falls to David Zippel’s lyrics, so that the final 15 minutes require rather too much concentration.

But Anna O’Byrne as Laura is a suitably demure (and then distressed) bride and she sings beautifully. As Marian, Carolyn Maitland certainly has the required acting chops and mostly sings with real passion and clarity, even if her solo, All For Laura, did present her with a couple of challenging top notes. All in all, a tight and propulsive production, proving that small can be beautiful, too.

Until 10 February at the Charing Cross Theatre, London WC2: 0844-493 0650, www. charingcrosstheatre.co.uk 

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