Sir Percival Glyde (Chris Peluso) encounters The Woman in White. Photo: Darren Bell
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2004 grandiose Victorian melodrama has been scaled down to fit into the modestly sized Charing Cross Theatre with a neat ensemble cast of three (plus a child) supporting seven principals accompanied by a nine piece band – and it works a treat under Thom Southerland’s direction.
Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel, upon which this opera (sorry, “sung-through musical”) is based, has a complex, convoluted, multi-faceted plot using eight multiple narrators so that you get different points of view and lots of “insider” information. That isn’t easy to convey in a linear format but Charlotte Jones’s book simplifies the action and makes the story pretty clear as we see Laura Fairlie coaxed away from the love of her life into a “good” marriage which, of course, is anything but. Eventually, as you’d expect, good triumphs over evil and most characters, with one notable exception, are either happy or have got their just deserts by the end.
David Cullen’s “supervised orchestrations” of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music are both beautiful and wide ranging. Often lyrical and beautifully sung in close harmony, it’s also frequently dramatic. And, a joy for me as a string player, the scoring includes a lot of work for a viola and two cellos. The lyrics (by David Zippel) are imaginative too and often funny after the style of WS Gilbert.
Equally lovely – and clever – is Morgan Large’s set based on an archway at the back of the stage, surrounded by attractively lit (by Rick Fisher) wrought ironwork and a pair of doors which slide across each other to provide a centre stage entry and exit point. And of course it’s all very darkly lit because we’re in pretty gothic territory.
Carolyn Maitland is magnificent as Marian Holcombe, Laura’s half-sister who tries so hard to support her. She ranges from witty, flirtatious and insouciant to full belt weeping. She finds admirable resolution in her character and sings like a nightingale especially in her duets with Laura (Anna O’Byrne) and trios with Anne Catherick (Sophie Reeves) who haunts the plot with her secret before we eventually reach that time honoured plot device of who fathered whom.
Chris Peluso is all too plausible as Sir Percival Glyde, the totally amoral, gambling, violent husband who wants Laura’s money. He is attractive and charming and the audience has no trouble seeing why Marian and the women’s uncle regard him as a suitable match. Then we are shown him as he really is and it’s powerfully convincing. Ashley Stillburn, as the contrasting good guy, is warm, troubled, determined and both men sing well.
Even more striking is Greg Castiglioni as charismatic Count Fosco, a character often made utterly grotesque in dramatisations of Collins’s novel. Castiglioni makes him charming as he schemes subtly and, for a long time, dupes the women.
High spots in this enjoyable, touching show – which stresses, and objects to, the expected, unquestioning subservience of women in the mid nineteenth century – include the Rossini pastiche number You Can Get Away With Anything. It’s Lloyd Webber at his sparkling, witty best and Castiiglioni has great fun with recasting his Italian character as an opera singer. Then there’s the piano which Laura and others “play”. It’s just an empty skeleton like a Handspring puppet. There’s a pretty dance at the wedding too choreographed by Cressida Carré. And the emphasis on trains, just coming into their own in Collins’s time - is good. Rural stations are, lonely mysterious places at night and trains are powerful smoke belching dragons when comeuppance is required.
Ashley Stillburn as Walter Hartright, Anna O'Byrne as Laura Fairlie, Carolyn Maitland as Marian Halcombe. Photo: Darren Bell