Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 10 February 2018
Guest reviewer: Michael Adair
When The Woman in White debuted at the Palace Theatre in 2004, much of the commentary focused on it being a technological feat, with digital projections in abundance. With this first revival, directed by Thom Southerland, the more intimate setting seems to lend itself more readily to Wilkie Collins’s gothic source material. But what begins by looking like a dark, haunting thriller soon descends into much less: for a production running in excess of two hours, too much feels as if we are being dragged from one dusty drawing-room to another, the only sign of transition being two moving wooden panels. Sometimes there is a door.
But, of course, there is always the music. This is Lloyd Webber, and when it hits the right notes it is superb. With shrill, suspenseful violins, ominous clarinet and timpani, we are treated early on to a stunning, soaring duet between Anna O’Byrne’s Laura Fairlie and Ashley Stillburn’s amiable Walter Cartwright. The two fall madly in love but suddenly, and for little discernible reason, she soon wanders off to marry the obviously-up-to-something Sir Percival Glyde, played by Chris Peluso, who hadn’t even been mentioned. That is the main crux of what is wrong here: with so much strung-out exposition and rambling sing-song conversation throughout the first act it is hard to know or care why anyone is doing anything. The eponymous Woman in White and her connection to the sinister Sir Percival barely make sense.
In the midst of this lengthy exposition are lyrics by the multi-award winning David Zippel. As one might expect in a musical of this lineage, the entire thesaurus of rhyming couplets is mercilessly unleashed – ‘this story breaks my heart, I don’t know where to start’ is one of the many waves of maddeningly contrived lines which would even make Dr Seuss blush. Sometimes it feels as if the cast are making the rhyme up as they go along, and by the second act it becomes a game of guessing the next line. A mention must also go to some of the driest recitative I have ever witnessed, as poor Laura frantically sings ‘A document!? What kind of document?’.
Should that matter if it’s fun? There are a number of hackneyed troughs, but most certainly peaks. By the second Act when the plot is finally established, we are treated to a joyous performance from Greg Castiglioni as the scene-stealing Count Fosco, who rightly received the loudest cheers of the night. There are even a few bells and whistles in the form of a humorous game of roulette where the audience is treated as the table, although it only seemed interesting because the rest of the staging was so lacklustre. The question remained, who is this show for? There are moments of genuine humour , and coupled with the silly rhyming and the music it suggests that this is a family show – but then come the bloated scenes in murky drawing rooms, full of men sitting around in period costume sipping brandy and scheming. Hardly something to thrill the kids.
I recognise that the plot is based on a Victorian novel, but the tired lapse into gender stereotypes becomes tedious. Much of the conversation in the first act was concerned with men acting with integrity (doing what they want) – while in the second, our heroines yearn for a man to help right all of the wrongs in the world. One even admits ‘We are powerless at the hands of these men.’ Our female protagonists are treated as if they only have looks and wealth on their side. I find it disappointing.
The cast are fantastic, the music does its job. But they are letdown by a convoluted and tired plot and some dry dusty staging.