BWW Review: WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, Union Theatre
With Greta Thunberg named Time Magazine's Person of the Year and on the eve of a general election in which the lines between younger and older people have never been more starkly drawn, Whistle Down The Wind's returns to the Union Theatre is timely.
The children believe - naively but honestly - in the power of Grace, no matter how unlikely its manifestation, how much it disrupts their world, how much it challenges received wisdom. The adults believe in the power of routine, of the threat found in the unknown, of the need to cling on to what they have, though it may not be much.
You can take as much or as little as you like from those parallels with the right here, right now, but when has this much revisited allegory ever been more needed since Mary Hayley Bell wrote the novel 60 years ago?
This is the 1989 version by Richard Taylor and Russell Labey, an odd, off-centred work that in both music and tone sits better with Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw than it does with Broadway's musical heritage. There are some fine set pieces, beautifully delivered by musical director, Rosa Lennox, who is rewarded with some of the finest vocal performances I have heard at this venue in over ten years. Hector Murray also garners much praise for lighting that is often dark - the satanic mills were still there and still dark in late fifties Lancashire - but never so gloomy that we're straining to see the action. That's a harder-than-it-sounds trick to pull off in a fringe theatre.
All good, but what elevates this show to one of the very best in town just now is the quality of the performances. It's hard to credit that this is Sadie Levett's professional debut, so strong is her portrayal of Cathy, the leader of the child disciples, who invests everything in the stranger claiming (inadvertently) to be Jesus Christ. Levett has the look of a young Rachel Weisz and should aim as high with talent like that.
She gets excellent support from Tara Lucas, displaying masterful comic timing as Cathy's sister Nan, and George Hankers, all boyish enthusiasm as her brother, Charles. Juan Miralles plays the tricky role of the fugitive well, perhaps dialling back the menace a little (we know a lot more men manipulating children for their own ends now than we did even five years ago, never mind 30), but the ambivalence of his character remains nicely unresolved.
Amongst the adults, there are fine comic turns from Eoin McKenna as a vicar whose appeal to the heavens seems only to reach as far as his slateless roof and Louise Kempson, the Sally Army officer whose nativity play drives her to the bottle.
And a special mention to the children of the Union Youth Theatre who are far more than disciples, shepherds and wise men. What a thrill it must be to play so full a part in so splendid a production, the chorus work of which is a real highlight.
It's sentimental of course, but this show has a hard edge to it, a Hans Christian Anderson-like refusal to accept easy answers and a willingness to show that real life isn't always a series of "Happy Ever Afters". If your children might be ready for a story without princesses or soap stars - and if you are too - the Union Theatre offers a five star alternative to panto that can prick a tear in the eye as well as raise a laugh in your heart.