Nowhere, south of the United States, sometime in the 50s. A town with very strict religious views and an iron glove police force(think NKVD/Gestapo but not as friendly). Three little kids whose mother has passed away and whose father slaves away at the farm, affronted by a stark economic future.
And in the midst of this harsh reality, where racism is very alive and well and when it seems that all hopes and dreams are best left in a dusty cupboard, a stranger appears in their barn. He has wounds in his chest, his hands and his feet. He says his name is Jesus.
So starts Whistle Down the Wind, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical dashed with lyrics by Wagnerian rocker Jim Steinman. Now, if that sounds like the thing you’d avoid, you’d be surprised. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Mary Hayley Bell and as an adaptation, it really works.
I am a fan of musicals, but for me, Lloyd Webber is VERY hit and miss. I was a bit wary about this particular musical and although I was intrigued by a few songs, I didn’t know what to expect.
Still, it was in the Sheffield Lycaeum (aka the place where you need to chop your legs off to get seated) and it was an opportunity to finally see it. To say the least, it was an exhausting experience.
Not meant as a slight. Really.
The plot is more convoluted that you might think. It requires your full attention. There are several threads, all perfectly intertwined: the racial tensions, the thin line between being a true believer or just another mindless zealot, love and jealousy, the importance of family and finally, the innocence of childhood versus the decadence of adulthood.
In the midst of that precarious balance is the protagonist, Swallow (portrayed by Carly Bawden), trying to maintain a secret from a town that wouldn’t understand and her anguish seeps through. Heck, Mr. G4 himself, Jonathan Ansell, was superb as the tortured soul we know only as The Man (jebus almighty!!!) and he quite held his own with the rest of the great cast directed by Bill Kenwright.
The music is on the Rock side of the spectre. Like an unmade Meat Loaf album, this musical unravels upon you, never boring, never letting go of the heartstrings. There will be betrayals, there will be alliances and the bitter end is seen a mile coming. It’s all “tyre tracks and broken hearts”. Fret not for the ones gone, fret for the ones left behind.
By the end you feel the crux of the story, what both Swallow and The Man learn: you need the strength to understand where you are, so you can see that your ideal reality and the ugly truth it really is clash together and a painful decision must be made.
The loneliest words you’ll ever know / “If only, if only it was so” / The emptiest words that they’ll ever be / “It could have been me. It could have been me”