Whistle Down The Wind

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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

BACK in my days as a poor impoverished student, I took a job working Front of House at the “New Theatre” in Oxford and saw 6 straight performances of Whistle Down the Wind when it was doing one of its professional tours in 2004. I have to admit, I didn’t really like it. It felt like a pretty depressing sort of show and not much really stood out as noteworthy in the production. Indeed, on paper it is not one of Lloyd Webber's greatest hits, not having had the success of Phantom, Superstar or the other long-runners in the West End. It was therefore with a small amount of trepidation that I came along to the Regent Centre in Christchurch to see BBLOC’s version of this show, making its regional premiere at the Regent.

The show, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Jim Steinman, has certainly a unique blend of two musical genres with some songs having the feel of Lloyd Webber’s traditional Phantom/Superstar creations, but many clearly having an influence from Jim Steinman's Meatloaf years. While the songs aren’t as widely known as some of Lloyd Webber’s others, there are some really stirring melodies and powerful rock-style anthems when they are performed well and, with a cast including a reasonable number of children, there is real potential to make this show a good one, on paper at least (not that the professional tour did this for me!). The storyline revolves around three children, whose mother has recently died. Swallow, the eldest, discovers a man hiding in the family barn. The first words he utters are "Jesus Christ," (the shock of being discovered, for he's actually an escaped convict) and Swallow takes it literally and believes the Son of God has returned and could well bring mum back from the dead. The core storyline follows Swallow’s emotional involvement with the ‘Man’ and the way her innocent faith shapes both of them. Of course, while this is happening, the Sheriff and the townsfolk are all seeking a prisoner on the run and so the plot unfolds.

So, having set the scene for you all let me now offer my perspective on BBLOC’s performance and contrast it with the professional tour I saw: put simply, BBLOC totally outshone the professional version!!

The show itself has many dynamics to contend with – a big set, big orchestrations, some tough vocal parts, a complex mood to create on stage and therefore the need for strong actors playing the leads and a need for a quality children’s chorus. But it would be fair to say that this performance had all of these attributes covered and while there were of course a few things which weren’t totally perfect (more on that later), overall I think this was a fantastic production and one which has definitely turned me back into a fan of the show. So, while you’re reading the rest of this review, why not log onto the Regent website and buy some tickets while there are still some left; you won’t be disappointed!

The two lead roles in the show are the parts of ‘Swallow’ and ‘Man’. Honor Criswick, who played 'Swallow' was simply outstanding. For one so young (in her first year of A-levels I assume from the programme), she held the stage like a professional. Her endearing innocence and pure, clear voice emotionally drew the audience into every scene she was in, and her flawless southern American accent did not overshadow her excellent acting as sometimes difficult accents are wont to do; a really great job in a really tough role which was perfectly played.

James Dixon-Box, who played the emotionally complex role of 'Man', was ever her equal on stage, putting every ounce of his very soul into his characterisation and performance and singing with an excellence and quality which isn’t seen as often as we’d like in amateur theatre. The chemistry between them was excellent – electric almost – and they were excellently cast and directed. His version of “Unsettled Scores” was mesmerising. Indeed, I could have watched and listened to these two all night! But the standout performances didn’t end there…

Julian Smith as ‘Boone’ set the vocal benchmark early on in Act 1 when he sang the title song from the show. The fullness and richness of his voice, which contained all the emotion of a man who had just lost his wife and was trying to be both father and mother to his children, was the first sign for me that this show was going to be significantly better than the tour I saw 8 years ago! A superb choice for this critical supporting role: what a cast this show had!

And then we have the other children. Now I’m sure many of us have been to see children’s shows and while we all enjoy watching children of any ability enjoy themselves on stage, so often as an audience member you are still holding in the back of your mind the fact that they are ‘just children’. But trust me when I say this was not one of those children’s performances – these guys were outstanding! Lottie Savage as ‘Brat’ and Nate Ruegg as ‘Poor Baby’ (Swallow’s siblings) were both fantastic singers and fantastic actors, again maintaining impeccable accents throughout, and held their own on stage even against the likes of ‘Swallow’ and ‘Man’. The other children: Olivia Taylor, Ella Lockyer, Lili Donlon-Mansbridge, Alice Marsden, Sammi Cook, Alex Smith, Lucy Godwin-Durrell and Joshua Priest were also great, but there was one little girl – Lucy Alner – who really stood out for me. I don’t know how old she is, but she was a joy to watch and again a consummate actress, singer and dancer: watch out for her in the future!

This children’s cast was central to keeping what is otherwise quite a sad show upbeat and their number “When Children Rule the World” was a highlight for me in Act 1. I wonder if they could have been a little less choreographed in their numbers and allowed a little of their own freedom of movement, but overall a great job was done by this group. (It is worth mentioning that there are two children’s casts and obviously I only saw one tonight, but I’m fairly confident the other will be equally as high quality!)

As I alluded to earlier, however, the show isn’t perfect and there are a few things which I think could have been improved upon. The main concern for me was the lighting. Now, it’s worth saying that the ambient stage lighting which was used to create the mood and illuminate the background scenery, the fire-scene and the barn was excellent. Indeed the set and staging as a whole was very good (although I’m never a big fan of stage crew being so visibly seen, even when in costume!) No, the issue for me was with the lighting of the principals. So often – and especially in the second half – the stage was so dark and smoky that the audience struggled to see the excellent acting taking place on stage because the faces of the principals were so rarely lit, or worse obscured by the way the scene had been staged. I really think that this needs to be addressed with either some more follow spots, or just sacrificing a little of the mood-lighting to ensure the principals can be seen more clearly…

Personally, I wasn’t totally sure about the opening of the show either. The show obviously doesn’t have a formal overture – fair enough – but I felt that getting the cast on stage for the church scene could be have been sped up and to be honest, I’d just dim the lights in the audience straight away as I’m not sure what the aim is with keeping the lights up once the show has begun? (I also think less of the bell sound would be no bad thing!!)

The final thing that didn’t work for me was the songs/scenes involving the Motorbike. I think these scenes were a little awkward and while Lee McGowan who played ‘Amos’ and Jo Uzzell who played ‘Candy’ were trying their best, it came across that they felt a little awkward and exposed on stage and it was perhaps this which led to some of the vocals on the song “Tire Tracks” suffering. It’s a shame the headlight of the motorbike wasn’t able to turn on or that there could have been some choice use of a smoke machine, both of which may have helped make the whole thing more realistic and less static? These scenes were probably the ones which came across least well overall, which was a shame.

On a positive note, before I close, I must mention the orchestra. With the more than capable hand of Ian Peters at the helm, the orchestra was excellent. A complex musical score with what I understand to be pretty elaborate orchestrations seemed to be tackled with ease and I was especially impressed when one of the Keyboard players grabbed a piccolo before returning back to the keys again – I love that kind of versatility! What a fantastic job and what a great, full sound.

Overall, I think this is a really great show. With a great turnout for opening night, I wasn’t surprised when a number of the audience rose to their feet at the end, such was the quality of the central principals and the children’s cast. The chorus were animated and committed to all their on stage movement and songs and indeed the overall feel of the show was one of quality, excellence and well-performed emotion. I would thoroughly recommend seeing it and want to remind you that if you, like me, don’t think of yourself as a Whistle Down the Wind fan, maybe this performance will convert you so why not give it a go and support local theatre!

Chris Vessey

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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

BASED on the novel by Mary Hayley B and subsequent 1961 film, it follows a group of children who find an escaped prisoner hiding in a barn. When confronted by them, he exclaims ‘Jesus Christ’. The children automatically assume that he is the real messiah and vow to protect him from other children and adults, bringing him food and gifts.

This production by the Bournemouth and Boscombe Light opera company sparkles from the opening chorus ‘Keys to the vaults on heaven’, sung by the congregation of America’s Deep South Baptist Church. The music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber ranges from sentimental love songs to rock n’ roll.

Honor Chiswick is an excellent lead as the 15-year old girl Swallow as is James Dixon-Box as the fugitive.

The large orchestra is under the direction of Ian Peters and the singing of the entire company is first class. This the company’s 62nd production maintains its high reputation for excellence.

Roy Sharp

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It is not every day that you come out of a Theatre feeling emotionally drained and yet on such a high that you want to tell everyone, that you have just seen an absolutely amazing show. An amateur production the standard of which, was equal to, if not better than, many of the professional shows that we see in our area. All though I knew the original storyline I had never previously taken much notice of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Musical adaption therefore I did not know what to expect.

I was stunned from the opening number, amazed by the powerful voices from the children in the cast, who without personal amplification were out singing the adult chorus. Boone’s rendition of “Whistle Down the wind” produced a shiver down my spine and I noticed tears running down my partners face and I realised that this production was going to be something special. I felt that all the leading cast members were outstanding throughout the show, their vocal range, particularly of the men, was very impressive, but without a doubt it's Honor Criswick who portrayed the leading role of Swallow stole the show.

There were times that the excellent orchestra overpowered the singing, and without the aid of personal microphones solo lines from chorus members were totally lost. But on the whole they were kept well under control and the sound they produced was superb.

This company usually bring in a professional director for their productions, but if this is the standard that long term company member Frank Ewins can produce at his first attempt, then why look elsewhere.

Brian Oliver (Regional NODA representative)

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