The Woman in White, Charing Cross Theatre, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

When it first opened at the Palace Theatre in 2004, the chief attraction in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White was the prospect of Michael Crawford (and, later, Michael Ball) playing Count Fosco while dressed in a fat suit.

The prosthetics may be gone in director Thom Southerland’s revival at the Charing Cross Theatre, but Fosco’s comedic villainy remains the musical’s highlight. Even without the artificial padding, the Count is The Woman in White’s most well-rounded character, and Greg Castiglioni makes him a loveable rogue despite his part in the main antagonist’s dastardly plan.

Unfortunately, no other character even comes close. Charlotte Jones’ book adaptation of Collins’ text compresses the epic tale of love and betrayal so much that exposition is favoured over character.

And that is a shame, because the Gothic dread of the original novel requires intense emotional character to be believable.

Instead, Ashley Stillburn’s Walter Hartwright, who encounters the mysterious figure of Anne, the eponymous Woman in White (Sophie Reeves) while en route to a position as an art teacher to two sisters in a remote country house, fails to engage with any of the three leading ladies.

Lloyd Webber’s music – hardly his best, for all its pretensions to classical form, with its nods to both light operetta and grand, bucolic opera seria – is beautifully orchestrated by David Cullen, and the grand sweeping gestures sound beautiful when played by the ten-piece orchestra under the baton of musical director Simon Holt.

But David Zippel’s lyrics – either in song or in the repetitive recitative – rarely rise to the same level, his rhyming couplets often opting for attempts at comedy when the tone of the scene calls for sheer melodrama.

And so, when Hartwright declares his love for Anna O’Byrne’s beautiful heiress Laura Fairlie, there is nothing of note to deserve the romantic duet ‘I Believe My Heart’.

More effective is Carolyn Maitland as Laura’s half-sister Marian; her own, unrequited romantic interest in Hartwright is more effectively demonstrated in a single, unspoken look than her sister’s is through Jones and Zippel’s words.

Morgan Large’s set design, all imposing and brooding grey arches and sliding panels, is suitably gloomy for a country home that would make Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall seem like a pastoral idyll. But its colourless gloom is sadly all too appropriate for the whole production, which struggles to find much in the way of colour.

That said, Jonathan Lipman’s costumes, especially for sisters Laura and Marian, do provide splashes of sumptuous glory. But ultimately, one yearns for the colour to come from the characterisations and the songs. And despite those beautiful orchestrations, for which alone it is worth attending this revival, there is little to change the perception that The Woman in White deserves to be placed in the lower ranks of Lloyd Webber musicals.

Continues until 10 February 2018. Production image: Darren Bell

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