The Pennines Are Alive With The Sound Of Strange Music: Whistle Down The Wind

By Johnny Fox Last edited 39 months ago
The Pennines Are Alive With The Sound Of Strange Music: Whistle Down The Wind ★★★★☆ 4

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Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

For children of the post-war generation, Whistle Down The Wind (1961) was a seminal film: firstly, the boys all fell in love with Hayley Mills — a brilliant casting by her godfather, Bryan Forbes, for whom the eerie black-and-white allegorical drama of farm children who discover a man in their barn and are convinced it’s the second coming of Christ was a significant notch on his directorial gunbelt. Secondly, because it’s the movie that made a star of Alan Bates, and the girls all fell in love with him.

It works, both as a movie and a musical, because of the absolute conviction of the actors playing the children. In Sasha Regan’s cleverly focused production the kids are played, in an homage to Dennis Potter, by young adults. Themes of rural childish innocence and adult suspicion give it it the texture of Broadchurch, supported by a complex and unusual score arranged for piano, clarinet and French horn which sounds often operatic, although with a touch of Hymns Ancient and Modern when the youngsters raise their voices in more conventional anthems and it really takes off.

There was a more commercial version of this musical: you can learn about its epic scale and scope, and its ludicrous transposition to the ‘snake churches’ of Alabama by Andrew Lloyd Webber in this video in which producer Bill Kenwright begs like a first-year crowdfunder to finance an American tour. Fortunately, the Union’s revival is of the earlier adaptation by Russell Labey and Richard Taylor, which returns the story to its Lancashire roots and accent of the windswept Pennines, although some of the 'adult' characters let the side down by playing too broadly, and vocally everyone should be more closely channelling Jane Horrocks.

Although he isn't given much to do in the first act but brood and express pain, Callum McArdle gives a strong performance as The Man. He has a look of the young Alan Bates, his reluctant bond with the trusting children is wholly believable, and his vocals are terrific. A schoolboy named Alan Barnes played Cathy's brother Charles on screen, and stole every scene: Alex James Ellison nails both his cheeky insouciance and his hurt faith when 'Jesus' fails to save his ailing kitten.

The movie played more on the coming-of-age of the Hayley Mills character and while Grace Osborn is tremendous as Cathy — watchful, resourceful and yearning, with vital clarity in both her acting and singing — the piece would work better if it were clearer how the pivotal presence of the stranger in the barn shifts her reactions from a child’s to a young woman’s. It would also be stronger if the fire in the barn were more fully realised, and there's a missed touchstone moment of comedy and pathos in the film right at the end when a small boy arrives saying 'have I missed him?' and Cathy replies 'yes, 'til the next time'.

Don't wait 'til the next time. See this now.

Whistle Down The Wind continues at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street SE1, until 21 February 2015.  Tickets £20/£17 from the theatre website. Londonist saw this production on press tickets provided by the team at the Union.

Last Updated 02 February 2015