The Union Theatre’s production of Whistle Down The Wind is based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell, the screenplay by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse and the film by Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes. Wisely, Russell Labey and Richard Taylor have combined the best of all three; their production thankfully lacks the slick, mawkish glamour of the Lloyd Webber musical version, but neither is it as unrelentingly grim as the 1961 film. Most of the religious allegories were still there – Peter’s denial of Christ, the wise men bringing gifts etc. – but they were not laboured. However, I was sad to see that the final arrest scene from the film, with the symbolic “crucifixion” style spread arms, had not made it into this cut.
The story of a group of Lancashire children stumbling across an escaped convict in a remote barn and mistaking him for Jesus with predictably chaotic consequences may be incredible, but it is also funny, sad and heart-warming. Richard Taylor’s score underpins the action rather than leading it, and the songs, though unmemorable, are sweet. The set is simple and very clever; a dilapidated trellis covered with assorted junk permanently represents the barn and a table and chairs are moved around to become a church, a school, a playground or a kitchen. Lighting is also cleverly deployed to accentuate the set changes.
The acting, a couple of dodgy Lancashire accents notwithstanding, is generally excellent. It is no easy feat for an adult to play a child convincingly; done wrongly it can be either uncomfortable or unintentionally hilarious, demanding the audience’s attention to the exclusion of all else. In this production it is done very well indeed, by all concerned. Grace Osborn is excellent as the eldest child, Cathy; her solemn little face radiates determination to do what is right, and she captures the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence perfectly. Imelda Warren-Green is very funny as little sister Nan, giving a performance reminiscent of Sally Thomsett as Phyllis in The Railway Children. Alex James Ellison tackles the particularly difficult role of little brother Charles with commendable subtlety, never letting his comic excesses spill over into pantomime. Of the “adults”, Danielle Morris and Bryan Hodgson gave outstanding performances; Morris as the harassed but indomitable teacher and Hodgson as the vicar more concerned about his guttering than the souls of his parishioners. The cast dealt well with both the comedy and the tragedy, never milking the pathos but rather acknowledging it with a curt not and a rough pat on the head, in true Lancashire style. The nativity scene where the long suffering parents inform the audience of their true feelings about what they are being forced to watch was brilliantly done and very funny, and the scenes between The Man and the children were touching.
The staging was clearly a challenge, and although the choreography was clever and smooth it did not always take into account the exigencies of the small, oddly laid out theatre. Vast swathes of the action took place with everyone sitting on the floor, meaning that anyone not in the front row of the audience had to crane their necks uncomfortably, and a key scene with the convict took place, as far as my section of the audience was concerned, behind a table. The music was also a problem; it is a lovely idea to have live band in the room but in such a small space the acoustics were rather deafening for those of us nearest the instruments, and meant that many of the lyrics went unheard. It was a shame, as the quality of the singing was quite excellent and it would have been nice to have been able to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, Whistle Down The Wind is a professional, entertaining and moving production with an incredibly talented cast, and it deserves to be a great success.
Review by Genni Trickett
Whistle Down The Wind
The time is the late 1950s, the place, a small village in Lancashire. Hurrying to a barn with three rescued kittens, Cathy, a schoolgirl, discovers a stranger hiding there. She recognises Him immediately as Jesus Christ and tells her sister, Nan. The next day their brother Charles also learns of their discovery. They decide to tell nobody, but gradually word spreads through the children of the village. Anxious to protect Jesus from unbelieving adults, they keep His arrival a secret and besides, most of their parents are preoccupied with news of a convict on the loose in the area. Trouble starts when the village bully, Raymond, threatens to give the game away . . . Adapted from the famous film and novel, this critically acclaimed musical will enthral audiences with its powerful and moving score and book.
The Company of Whistle Down The Wind
Callum McArdle, Grace Osborn, Alex James Ellison, Chris Coleman, Kathyrn Hamilton-Hall, Danielle Morris, Romero Clark, Bryan Hodgson, Oliver Stanley, Sebastion Thomas, Joshua Lewindon, Harry Wright, Edward Crann, Sarah Kate Howarth, Imelda Warren-Green, Ana Richardson, Molly Steere and Donna Marsh.
28th January to 21st February 2015
Evenings: Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2.30pm
Saturday 31st January 2015