The Woman In White @ Palace Theatre, London

cast list
Michael Ball
Maria Friedman
Martin Crewe
Angela Christian
Oliver Darley
Jill Paice

adapted by
Charlotte Jones

music by
Andrew Lloyd Webber

directed by
Trevor Nunn

Poor Andrew Lloyd Webber. That’s certainly not a statement you’ll often hear. But the man did take a bit of a press battering for his new musical The Woman In White. Aside from a few excellent reviews in the broadsheets, most of the initial press for his latest lavish production claimed that the musical just didn’t work.

It led me to wonder exactly what he has to do to receive acclaim from the press; after all, the vast majority of critics appear to actively dislike his entire output, even The Phantom Of The Opera. Perhaps the reason for their dislike is that ‘ordinary’ people enjoy his work so much; it’s as if they’re saying: “if it’s easy listening and simple to sing then it can’t be good”.

Sonia Friedman, the musical’s producer, has discussed in interviews how it seems almost as if people react negatively to Lloyd Webber because he has achieved so much, as if they now automatically feel obliged to criticise him. However the critics really shouldn’t use his populist credentials against him in regards to The Woman In White, because the production contains very few simple melodic lines – instead Lloyd Webber creates a dark and foreboding soundscape to accompany the story’s atmosphere, and makes use of often complex time signatures – and even discordant chords – in a continuous musical structure more reminiscent of an opera.

The production contains some of Lloyd Webber’s most interesting music to date – a dark vision of London seen through the eyes of an innocent young woman is accompanied by a complex, strong rhythmic pulse, and a menacing wedding ceremony (which brilliantly utilises the revolving stage and video walls) is sung as a discordant and unsettling version of The Holly And The Ivy. The choreography is sparse but works well – though there is little opportunity for the characters to dance about. In many ways, the chosen approach could be better described as physical theatre.

Based on the hugely popular Victorian thriller by Wilkie Collins dating from 1860, the musical is appropriately housed in the gothic Palace Theatre, previous home of Les Misérables. The novel has been intelligently adapted by Charlotte Jones, with the inventive lyrics supplied by David Zippel (which work to best effect in You Can Get Away With Anything). Director Trevor Nunn skilfully creates an atmospheric evocation of both the period and Collins’ ghost story. He is aided by a visionary set design by William Dudley, which employs huge video walls that engulf the set. Apparently seven kilometres of video cables are used, and an absence of clutter on the stage allows seamless set changes and impressive panoramic views. It is an example of modernisation techniques which the West End should be embracing, making inventive use of new technology while never detracting from the story or atmosphere.

The star of the show is, beyond any doubt, Michael Ball, who has taken on the role – and the impressive fat suit – of Count Fosco (after its previous occupant, Michael Crawford, was forced to pull out due to illness) with relish and verve. Ball, in turn, was well supported by Martin Crewe as the heroic Walter Hartright, Maria Friedman as Marian Halcombe and Angela Christian as the, very chilling, white-clad woman of the title.

Admittedly, this isn’t a complete crowd pleaser – the story ensures it won’t be a big hit with a family audience. However, it is a well thought out and inventive musical, and Lloyd Webber’s music manages to be both challenging and mature – to the point where it was sometimes even reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim.

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