It’d be fair to say that the original 2004 production of ‘The Woman in White’ was not one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successes. It ran for 19 months in the West End and just three on Broadway, to a tepid critical response. But this no-frills revival at Charing Cross Theatre, free of weighty expectations, is surprisingly fun.
To be sure, Charlotte Jones’s script – trimmed down between London and New York – burns through Wilkie Collins’s huge Victorian gothic mystery novel. Teacher Walter Hartright meets the ghostly woman in white and falls for orphan Laura Fairlie, who becomes engaged to the tyrannical Sir Percival Glyde, at whiplash speed.
The almost audible squeak of narrative compression results in a lot of things happening just because they do, and the dialogue isn’t the finest you’ll hear. Similarly, Webber and lyricist David Zippel’s ‘I Believe My Heart’ buckles under the weight of having to create a grand romance between Walter and Laura in just one song.
Still, in spite of a shaky start and the sometimes ungainly narrative-in-song style, there’s something gleefully enjoyable about this show’s breathless pace. Director Thom Southerland dispenses with fiddly sets (and avoids the original’s much-derided projected backdrops), keeping his production in a whirl of twists and turns.
The cast give it their all. Greg Castiglioni fully embraces the camp excess of disreputable Count Fosco. Meanwhile, a fine-voiced Carolyn Maitland’s deftly comic-tragic turn as sleuthing Marian Halcombe has you rooting for her.
It’s good to see a musical where the female characters drive the story. Marian and Laura do (and risk) far more than the self-pitying Walter to expose Sir Percival, in a situation where the men have all the power. It’s a pleasing undercurrent in a show that succeeds by acknowledging that it’s popcorn theatre.