With a focus on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sumptuously melodious score, the new chamber-sized production of The Woman in White avoids the excesses of the original staging, allowing the gripping Victorian melodrama to be enjoyed purely on its own merits.
As artistic director, Thom Southerland is carving out a special place for Charing Cross Theatre on the London theatrical landscape. Scaled down productions of musicals with beautiful scores allows full attention on the singers, and Southerland, as director of The Woman in White, has gathered another set of beauties.
The original 2004 staging of The Woman in White made use of new technology to create the scenery entirely from animated projections. There was a novelty to this approach but, ultimately, no lasting benefit. With well-placed faith in the strength of its material, this lean production respects audience intelligence, striking a human connection that is further enhanced by the relative intimacy of the performance space.
Adapted from the serialised 1859 Wilkie Collins novel, the collaboration of Charlotte Jones (book) and David Zippel (lyrics) has resulted in an efficient and entertaining telling of a genuinely gripping mystery. The through-sung musical includes sufficient charming Lloyd Webber melodies as to provide elegant accompaniment of exposition scenes, avoiding the sometimes clunky effect when dialogue is set to music. The Big Songs, neatly embedded in the continuous flow of music, are eminently hummable.
After an ominous prologue, a love triangle promptly springs between half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie and their handsome new art tutor Walter Hartright. The first four songs establish these young characters, and culminate in the gorgeous duet “I Believe My Heart,” as Laura and Walter realise their love.
The Woman in White is best enjoyed with no further knowledge of the surprises and secrets in store.
Southerland makes excellent use of the Morgan Large’s deliberately simple scenic design, creating the sense of distance and adjacent spaces through the actors’ positioning and focus. The actors’ complete commitment to their characters allows the audience to easily suspend disbelief and enjoy the thrilling ride.
Rick Fisher’s lighting design creates a brooding atmosphere, and his creative use of coloured back lighting creates a range of modes for the main rear arch design.
Costume design, by Jonathan Lipman, is a clear feature of the production. Lipman provides a very impressive number of gorgeous gowns for the female characters, and conveys the wealth of the lead male characters with rich, dark colours. Highlights include each of Laura’s white gowns, Sir Percival Glide’s green velvet coat, and Glide and Count Fosco’s decorative vests while gambling.
Musical director Simon Holt expertly leads an orchestra of ten musicians, creating a full, rich sound despite the somewhat reduced orchestrations. Andrew Johnson’s sound design is comfortably loud and perfectly balanced between vocals and instrumentals so that every precious word is easily heard.
The beautiful singing starts with highly experienced actors Carolyn Maitland and Anna O’Byrne as sisters Marian and Laura, joined by Ashley Stillburn as Walter. The quality continues with Chris Peluso as Sir Percival Glide and Greg Castiglioni as Count Fosco. The pleasure of hearing these voices sing Lloyd Webber’s music is a chief attraction of the production.
Maitland drives the action with great conviction as she portrays Marian’s deep sisterly love for Laura and her unrequited love for Walter. (Think of Marian as Angelica Schuyler, where Laura is Eliza and Walter is Alexander Hamilton).
O’Byrne is heavenly casting as Laura, garnering full audience sympathy and affection for the imperilled, fragile young woman.
Sophie Reeves captures the helpless frustration of Anne Catherick, enhancing the mystery with her portrayal of Anne’s impervious anxiety. On the couple of occasions that Reeves, O’Byrne and Maitland sing together, the sound is absolutely angelic.
Stillburn deepens the heroic Walter with unflagging intensity. Stillburn’s delivery of act two ballad “Evermore Without You” provides the strongest possible case that the song should be as highly rated in the Lloyd Webber canon as hits such as “Love Changes Everything.”
Peluso plays against type as the villainous Sir Glide, eschewing the moustache twirling to simply play a relentless, immoral man who believes he is in the right.
Castiglioni reinvents Count Fosco as a vainglorious hedonist with a bubbling undercurrent of good conscience. Castiglioni’s delivery of “A Gift For Living Well” and “You Can Get Away With Anything” are joyful highlights, providing much-needed moments of levity amidst the heavy drama.
Anthony Cable provides strong support as curmudgeonly elder Mr Fairlie, creating a rounded character from the broad strokes provided.
To enjoy the best musical theatre singing in London at off-West End prices, The Woman White is highly recommended.
The Woman in White was reviewed 7.30pm Thursday 18 January 2018 at Charing Cross Theatre, London, where it plays until 10 February 2018.
Photos: Darren Bell