Star rating: 4 stars ****
Now somewhat overshadowed in musical theatre history by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman’s US-set adaptation, Russell Labey and Richard Taylor’s 1989 production of Whistle Down the Wind retains the setting, spirit and wry humour of the 1961 film of Mary Hayley Bell’s novella.
The story of three Lancashire farm children who discover a man hiding in their barn and come to the conclusion that he is Jesus, the musical – like Bell’s novella and Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s screenplay – captures the innocent charm of young lives dominated by Sunday School Bible tales, effectively contrasting youthful innocence with the weary wariness and cynicism from the adults around them.
Originally written for the lead and supporting roles to be played by children of appropriate age, The Union’s production is the first with the entire cast portrayed by adults. And while this may be initially jarring – older souls will be reminded of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – any doubts about such casting soon fade away.
This is predominantly down to the three siblings, played by Grace Osborn, Alex James Ellison and Imelda Warren-Green, who work tirelessly to portray the rambunctious, scuff-kneed threesome with exactly the right level of earnest naïveté. Through them, the world in which they and their school friends become disciples to the mysterious stranger – oblivious to the fact that their parents are fearful of an escaped convict – is brought to life.
Amid Nik Corrall’s dark, minimalist set, Richard Taylor’s music enhances the atmosphere. A couple of the large choral numbers, originally intended for younger voices, do lose a little with the transition to older actors, but the obvious influence of Anglican hymns is still present and powerful – and if anything, the ensemble’s last number, ‘Follow! Follow! Follow Him!’, resonates more deeply with the inclusion of voices at lower registers.
Comedy songs, such as Osborn, Ellison and Warren-Green’s ‘The Mayor of Burnley’ in which the trio imagine all the dignitaries who will come to visit “their” Jesus, or a nativity scene in which parents and children alike sing of how much they hate the annual ritual, sit well amongst the more earnest numbers.
Viewed through the prism of childish innocence, the adults have a tendency to come across in broad strokes, from the no-nonsense aunt who has grudgingly looked after the three siblings after their mother’s death to the vicar who is more concerned with the vandalism to his church than to offering pastoral care to the children in his congregation. And so it feels completely believable that oldest sister Cathy (Osborn) becomes the one offering her peers spiritual guidance, her resolute faith in the son of God hiding in her barn having a positive effect on the other children.
As ‘The Man’, Callum Mcardle remains steadfastly enigmatic: never rejecting the identity the children have given him, but completely disarmed by the faith they place in him. One feels sure that the friendship he develops with the children, and with Cathy in particular, would not survive in an original script written in the 21st Century, but in this setting and played with much conviction, it never fails to be impressively believable.
There may not be as many out and out allegorical Biblical references in Labey and Taylor’s adaptation of Whistle Down the Wind as the original film possessed, but its message of the redemptive power of simple, blessed faith remains as strong. Leaving the audience with stirred hearts and moist eyes, the Union’s all-adult revival is an undoubted success.