Watching The Woman in White is a little like traveling back in time. Not, as the setting would have it, to Victorian England, but rather to the age of the mega-musical. You know, when everything was based on old literature and had a love triangle and ten power ballads and Webber and Boublil and Schoenberg were gods. The Woman in White has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, too. When it premiered on the West End and Broadway just over a decade ago (well after the mega-musical golden age), that meant everything you’d expect in the way of grandeur, including one of the first uses of dynamic projections as scenery. But this is the debut of Webber and lyricist David Zippel’s revised score, which along with the design and cast size, has been pared down and stripped back—at least in some respects.
The musical is based on an 1859 novel by Wilkie Collins, and it’s still as packed with plot as you’d expect from a Victorian mystery. Most of the revisions (which the press release only credits to Webber and Zippel, though there are obvious edits to Charlotte Jones’ book as well) relate to trimming the story down to the essentials. The show went through three revisions between its West End premiere and its Broadway debut, and all of them attempted to shorten the runtime, so maybe that’s not a surprise. In this round, the result is that everything flies by at a blistering speed. Londoner Walter Hartwright (Ashley Stillburn) arrives at a Cumberland estate to become drawing master to two lovely young heiresses, meets a mysterious woman in white who says she has a secret, meets the two lovely young heiresses, falls in love with one of them whilst they both fall in love with him—and we’re only three (long) songs in. Webber’s usual tendency to rely heavily on repeating melodic themes only enhances the sense that everything is moving way too fast. How are we at a reprise already?
Racing along in this manner means that while there’s never time to be bored, there’s also never time to get to know anyone, and even when we do occasionally pause for a ballad, Zippel’s workmanlike lyrics don’t reveal much in the way of character.
This does the greatest disservice to one of the two ladies, Marian, who emerges as the real main character after Walter fades from prominence (which he does even more noticeably in this version than the original). Marian (Carolyn Maitland) enters with one of the few light-hearted numbers as too loud, too chatty, and probably a bit too self-deprecating (though the musical takes pains to indicate that, unlike in Collins’ novel, she is not ugly). She is the first character who seems fully formed—but once she slips into her place in the love triangle and as witness to the dramatic events that follow, all that definition fades.
Marian is half-sister to Laura (Anna O’Byrne), who is engaged to be married to a baronet (Chris Peluso) who may have something to do with the mysterious woman in white (Sophie Reeves) that Walter keeps seeing. As ever with the requisite lover in the mega-musical love triangle (see: Cosette, Raoul), she is little more than a pretty cypher, even once pushed to breaking point. Walter is an artist and former alcoholic, neither of which a personality make, though at least the hints are there in his case.
The most engaging character, in contrast, is one of the least important: Count Fosco, the baronet’s friend, played with all the deliberate hamminess by Greg Castiglioni. He’s written to steal scenes, and he does so with great success, because his lines and songs actually reveal a distinct sense of character. He is the only personality on stage with any trace of moral ambiguity or genuinely mixed motives, which of course makes him more interesting. Acting as the comic relief helps, too.
While Webber and Zippel’s original score included seasonal references to mark the passage of time and contribute to the gothic feel, in this version time is impossible to track. In the first scene, reference is made to a vision that is to be fulfilled in a year’s time—but lines that used to close the frame and mark the year’s passage are now cut, leaving the only clear temporal thread dangling.
Settings are likewise obscure. Director Thom Sourtherland is plainly trying to contribute to the streamlining effort with his use of a pair of moving archways as a flexible set, bringing on small tables and chairs and such as needed, whilst trying to keep the cast moving fluidly from place to place without obvious settings. Unfortunately the result is enduring uncertainty about where anyone is at a given moment, especially the division between indoors and out.
Collins’ novel is, of course… a novel. Meaning the author has more time than a playwright to unwind his plot and build suspense (a feature that is also, unsurprisingly, truncated by the effort to make everything faster. In once instance, the woman in white finally names her tormenter, only for his real identity to be revealed in the very next scene, literally not more than five minutes later). However, Collins’ novel is written using multiple perspectives, which means that every character has a distinct voice and a subjective view of what is going on. It is this narrative device that makes the dramatic twists and turns of the plot compelling: not the fact that there are startling reveals aplenty, but that they are revealed to and by a set of engaging characters, each of whom has their own take on the matter. Lacking that, as the musical does, even the highest stakes (theft, murder, abuse) fall oddly flat.
This is a genuine shame, because there are frequent glimmers of a moving and extremely timely story about women banding together in face of those seemingly insurmountable masculine weapons of superior legal power and unwillingness to believe the stories women tell. This requires a departure from the novel’s ending, one that empowers the woman in white where Collins undermines her, and renders her revelations a more dramatic and obvious case of patriarchal abuse (making it particularly notable that one of the lyrical emendations is to remove the word, and accompanying accusation of, rape).
Thus, as a musical, The Woman in White contains the seeds of a story about women helping each other, striving to do justice to and for one another. Although Webber, Zippel, and Jones are obviously trying bring those seeds to fruition, the musical is continually, magnetically drawn back to that damned love triangle, embedding a constant implication that no matter their protestations of unity, women are always secretly in competition and, of course, always secretly more concerned with men than with each other.
The musical’s moral really can be more or less summed up as ‘always listen to women’, a lesson that is especially worth repeating as we are maybe finally collectively coming to grips with that statement’s truth. But it’s hard to listen to the women when their writers haven’t really given them a voice.
The Woman in White is on until 10 February 2018 at the Charing Cross Theatre. Click here for more details.