WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND

Date 25th January 2020
Society Ballywillan Drama Group
Venue Riverside Theatre, Coleraine
Type of Production Musical
Director Brian Logan
Musical Director Eric Boyd
Choreographer Sharon Logan assisted by Laura Fisher

Report

Author: Sheelagh Hobart

Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music for “Whistle”, co-writing the book with Patricia Knop & Gale Edwards and with lyrics by Jim Steinman. It is based on the 1961 black&white film starring Hayley Mills as a child actor and her father Sir John, which in turn was sourced from a book by their mother/wife Mary Hayley Bell. Andrew Lloyd Webber changed the setting from Lancashire to America’s deep south and, after premiering in London 1998, it has been revived a number of times and toured extensively. (Its American opening in 1996 Washington DC had negative reviews so the Broadway premier was cancelled and ALW then reworked it for London).

Not an easy show to bring to the stage it is, nevertheless, a favourite of Brian and Sharon’s. The score is often discordant and in minor keys but MD Eric led his 12 piece expertly from his keyboard and they were always balanced with vocalists. Brian’s set design nearly enclosed the stage in slatted timber with the barn interior being revealed stage right behind a rotated truck and Boone’s kitchen on a truck stage left, pulled forward and turned around. Graded steps stage left were well utilised throughout the production, particularly during full company scenes. Props in the barn were well chosen with appropriate farm implements and straw bales, as was kitchen décor. Speedy scene and prop changes kept up a good pace. Costumes were authentic for the period and impoverished circumstances of most of the people, with suitable sheriff uniforms and believable dirt and bloodied vest for The Man. Sound effects were on cue and sound pretty good – it is unavoidable to miss some lyrics when the show is unfamiliar. Lighting played a large part in the piece, always atmospheric and projections on the front gauze were effective especially the train.

A large ensemble of townspeople opened the show with terrific vocals for “The Vaults of Heaven” and continued with full commitment whenever they were on stage. They came in all ‘shapes and sizes’ as was appropriate for general inhabitants and all, from oldest to youngest, were very well rehearsed and didn’t put a foot wrong. There were two groups of children who appeared at alternate performances – I saw the ‘Featured Group’ and I’m sure the other ‘Children’s Chorus’ performed just as well. Principal child roles were also shared in the same way – Abigail Mairs (& Mia McConaghie) played Brat and Conor McColgan (& John Mullan) played Poor Baby. Abigail and Conor entered well into character and sang very well too. Big sister Swallow was believably played by Claire Campbell – a huge role beautifully portrayed. Their father Boone, who was struggling to cope with his children while mourning his recently deceased wife/mother was empathetically played by Richard Mairs (real father to Abigail!) His difficulty in understanding his children, especially his elder daughter growing to womanhood, was a challenge many of us recognised!  The supporting roles of Amos and Candy were well characterised as young rebels by Matt Suddaby and Megan Cunning – she as the young black girl feeling out of place, and he as the biker planning to run away with her but finding himself drawn to his childhood friend Swallow. Edward (Patrick Connor) featured at the beginning as a rather cruel individual when he tried to drown 3 kittens, though it transpired that he was a friend of Boones; and Earl (Jordan Watton) kept company with the Snake Preacher (Adam Goudy). All these lesser roles were well covered, as were the Sheriff and his Deputy (Paul Sleet & Jim Everett) and the opening Preacher (Richard Campbell). The latter effectively lead the singing of the ‘Vaults of Heaven’ on stage and then rushed off to work at the sound desk!

Alan McClarty reprised his role as ‘the Man’ after 7 years – just as strong and emotive as before. His rendition of the Soliloquy was impressive and the emotion he created in the audience was palpable. His relationship with the young Swallow developed subtly – sometimes unsettling in its intensity - and his inner struggle with past deeds was evident. Alan and Claire gave standout performances – both as actors and singers - and I was glad to see equal status given to them both in the finale.

The only dance choreography in this show is the country barn dance to “Cold”, of which the Choreographers took full advantage creating a high energy scene of Rock ‘n Roll. They moved the large cast efficiently and artistically around the stage throughout the show and everyone knew where they were going including the youngest children. MD Eric expertly coached the cast in the difficult music and both soloists and chorus were excellent  The contrapuntal piece between Amos, the Man and Swallow was particularly impressive. Brian Logan directed a thought-provoking show which illustrated the contrast between adult fear and prejudice and the innocence of children. The deeply religious upbringing of the children of the small town was central to the fantasy that the Man was Jesus – because he swore “Jesus Christ!” when asked his name. I was just a bit under-whelmed by the barn blaze. With Brian designing the lighting plot I expected more than some smoke and an orange glow through the slats!.  However at the end, the appearance of The Man dressed in brilliant white as a denouement left the audience with deep questions and emotions. 

My thanks go to everyone involved in Whistle Down the Wind for their part in giving James and me an evening to remember.