Whistle Down the Wind – Union Theatre, London

Adaptors: Russell Labey and Richard Taylor

Music and lyrics: Richard Taylor

Director: Sasha Regan

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Written in 1989. the Russell Labey/Richard Taylor musical adaptation of Whistle Down the Wind preceded the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman version by some seven years. Neither has proved to be a huge success, but this revival of the earlier, coming at the time of year when the show’s action takes place, at least strikes the right seasonal note.

Mary Hayley Bell’s story was filmed in 1961 with her own daughter, Hayley Mills, already a Disney child star at the time, in the leading role of Cathy. Directed by Bryan Forbes and with a screenplay by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, the film slotted into the new wave of working-class realism that was sweeping over British cinema in the early ‘60s and the challenge for Labey and Taylor was to make the storytelling relevant almost 30 years later. Now, three decades further on, director Sasha Regan is reviving a production which she staged originally at the same theatre in 2015, 

Cathy, played here with a clear zest for life by Sadie Levett, is the oldest of three siblings, leading the way for the mischievous Charles (George Hankers) and the inquisitive Nan (Tara Lucas). Their strict father (Stuart Simons) is a widower and they are looked after by their aunt (Fiona Tong) in their farmhouse during a bleak, cold  Lancashire December. When Cathy finds a bearded man (Juan Miralles) hiding in the barn, she immediately decides that he is Jesus returned to Earth and involves the other children in her conspiracy of silence. They are all oblivious to the fact that there is a murderer on the loose in the area, being hunted by police.

The story centres on children’s blurred vision of good and evil, setting childhood innocence against adult cynicism and pitching the blind faith of the young against the hollow faith of their elders. The three children are a joy, but Miralles’ “Jesus’ is a benign figure, lacking the menace to give the drama a sense of danger to contrast with the children’s sense of awe. 

The show is set at a time of post-war austerity in a small community dominated by oppressive Christianity and figures of authority – the policeman, the vicar, the school teacher – drawn strongly in Regan’s production. The children attend Sunday school, perform their dreadful Nativity play and speak of the Mayor of Burnley as if he is a superstar. Their closeted world has a charm which we associate with a bygone age.

The show’s key song, I Don’t Know What They’re Waiting to Hear, is sung beautifully by Miralles, but, otherwise, Taylor’s songs leave us with little to whistle as we leave the theatre on a windy night. Nondescript music and lyrics, particularly in the first act, fall flat when the show needs to be lifted and fail to deliver the stand-out moments that any musical needs.

For once the tiny Union Theatre does not need to pretend to be bigger than it is. This is a small scale show that is well-served by its surroundings. Justin Williams’ plain sets and Hector Murray’s atmospheric lighting respect the story’s simplicity, with Reuben Speed’s costumes looking spot-on for the period. This is a show of low-key pleasures offset by some disappointments.

Runs until 21 December 2019 | Image: 

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