In the Deep South of America, 15-year-old Swallow finds a man hidden and bleeding in her father’s barn. When she asks who he is, his first reaction is to exclaim “Jesus Christ”, and it is as if her prayers have been answered. While the adults of the small town search for a recently escaped murderer, the community’s children vow to help and protect ‘Jesus’ as much as they can. Matthew Amer attended the press night of Whistle Down The Wind, which is being staged at the Palace theatre.
Whistle Down The Wind started life as a children’s story, written by Mary Hayley Bell in the 1950s. The original story was set in Sussex, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has moved the action to bible-belt America, highlighting the concern for religion within Bell’s tale. While townsfolk and visiting religious factions talk of testing themselves against the devil, it is the children who gather unconditionally around a man they believe to be Jesus.
The altered setting also allows the concerns of the story to stray into the area of race. Most of the townsfolk treat the black members of their community as equals, though a mixed race relationship is frowned upon, and the town’s sheriff takes every opportunity he can to put black community members in their place.
It is the story of Swallow that dominates proceedings. At 15, she is becoming a woman, but has no female role model in her life due to the death of her mother. Then a man she believes could be the saviour of her life enters her world. For 15 she is still extremely naïve, but it is an endearing innocence that makes us wish for lost days of playing in the park, rather than an unbelievable or irritating character trait. There never seems any threat that anything inappropriate could enter her mind. How many 15-year-olds could that be said of today?
Claire Marlowe, making her West End debut in the role of Swallow, has a pure, unsullied voice to match her character’s untainted heart, and the songs featuring Swallow, her siblings Brat (Emma Hopkins) and Poor Baby (Laurence Belcher), and the other children of the town, admirably stay the touching side of saccharine sweet.
Tim Rogers’s character, the Man, never seems like the deranged killer the townspeople believe him to be. He never threatens the children in any way, though he must be fearful for his survival. Instead he allows them to act in a more adult and Christian manner than many of the adult Christians of their community, who sing together that “a little bit of slaughter is justified to bring us back our town”.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score strays from the hymnal pomp of opening number Keys To The Vault Of Heaven, through the feel-good rock and roll of bar room romp Cold, to the road-rock of Tyre Tracks. Marlowe’s performance of the title song is memorable, while No Matter What, which was released by Boyzone when the show was first staged in the West End, admirably demonstrates the gap between the children’s never failing support and the adults commitment to capturing an escaped felon.
As children’s stories go, the happy ending might not be what anyone was expecting, but at least Brat gets his wish for a Christmas bonfire.
Whistle Down The Wind is currently booking at the Palace theatre until 3 June.