Aspects of the tender touch
Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical plays it strictly by the book, says Michael Billington
Mae West once said she liked a guy who took his time. In that case she would enjoy Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love at the Prince of Wales.
The first half is a restless, breathless, unsatisfactory affair in which the scene seems to change every three minutes and in which the dramatic and musical ideas appear short-winded. It reminded me of the worst excesses of Les Miserables and we all know what that led to. Then, after the interval, the musical texture becomes lively and varied and the stage starts to flood with real emotion: the odd thing is that it is a passion felt by a teenage girl for a man old enough to be her father.
I suspect the initial problem is that Lloyd Webber and his collaborators (the lyricists Don Black and Charles Hart) have tried to stay too close to their source, David Garnett's 1955 novel. Thus they show us Alex, a 17-year-old Englishman, falling in love with Rose, an ambitious French actress; Rose's desertion of Alex for his worldly-wise uncle, George (a Bloomsbury super-hero who "dined with Garbo, translated La Boheme"); Alex winging the defecting Rose with a gunshot; and rose and George finally getting spliced in Venice.
The novel is buoyed up by Garnett's endorsement of May-December relationships sustained by a private income, a taste for Proust and Gide and a flat in the Ile St Louis. But the musical fails to convey the passage of time and whisks us briskly from one incident to the next. It also lacks the wry humour of the book where Alex, haven taken a pot-shot at Rose, makes a tourniquet out the cord from which a picture by Berthe Morisot is suspended. But the first half is scenically fidgety so that even the big love duet - Seeing is Believing - is diluted by being spread over a station, a train compartment and a house at Pau.
I began to feel that Lloyd Webber's great gift for structuring a musical had deserted him. Then, after the interval, a miracle occurs. As Jenny, the daughter of Rose and George, starts to fall pubescently in love with Alex, the stage is flooded with a wistful tendresse.
Lloyd Webber is fundamentally a romantic composer at his best with slightly irregular passions. In his last musical it was the love of a monster for an angelic soprano, Here it is the Gigi-like passion of a young girl for her mentor. But he also makes something exquisitely haunting out the ageing George's fondness for his daughter. As he gently sings to her, in the fading light of a Pau terrace, "I want to be the first man you remember, I want to be the last man you forget", you sense the poignancy of paternal affection.
Lloyd Webber's talent for uncluttered emotion finally comes through. But this also has a lot to do with the performance of Kevin Colson as the ageing baronet. Mr Colson endows him with a sad, silvery charm and a fierce anguish at seeing his daughter gradually yielding to his nephew's charms. Diana Morrison as the 14-year-old Jenny also has the right quality of lustful innocence. And Michael Ball plays Alex with a nice sense of bemused guilt.
I was less taken with the charms of Ann Crumb as Rose. It is a difficult role that calls for the qualities of a young Edwige Feuillere who can sing. Ms Crumb certainly has a voice but there is a showbiz toughness about her rather than the sensual maturity the role required. But Kathleen Rowe Allen as the Italian sculptress who seduces both George and his nephew displays a wonderfully blithe and easy sexuality.
Trevor Nunn's production, however, strikes me as a mixed affair. In the first half it is too frenziedly busy with some surprisingly crude bits of stagecraft: a hole, for instance, is noisily punctured in Maria Bjornson's set consisting of seven twirling louvred screens in order to make way for a train compartment. But in the second half Mr Nunn responds to the material and creates both images of rapturous gaiety (in a poetic evocation of a Paris circus) and moments of desolating sadness in the parting of Jenny and Alex.
It is an unusual musical for this day and age: one that explores the human heart rather than the possibilities of hi-tech scenery. And, at his best, Mr Lloyd Webber shows a capacity to reach emotions that other composers do not touch. But it is a beguiling, fitfully pleasing musical rather than a perfect one. I feel the real problem is structural and that, whereas in Phantom Mr Lloyd Webber took what he wanted from his source and junked the rest, he has here played it almost too strictly by the book.