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Novel idea, timidly scored

Andrew Lloyd Webber's new show is a musical which is light on music, writes Irving Wardle

David Garnett's relentlessly name-dropping novel of 1955 is no obvious candidate for the musical or any other stage; but Andrew Lloyd Webber and his team have succeeded in reworking it into a well-crafted show which is technically streets ahead of the book while faithfully preserving its essence.

What evidently attracted Lloyd Webber to the story was its exploration of the permutations of love across three generations in an environment free from the usual social constraints. This is France, which Garnett projected with floods of rentier snobbery and gastronomic italics. All that has vanished in Don Black and Charles Hart's well-plotted and metrically incisive libretto.

Garnett's versifying milord has become plain George Dillingham, an ageing English painter of independent means. Rose, whose affections he wins away from his nephew Alex, is now a credible working actress, and a formidable pill. Jenny, the fruit of their union, changes from a Barrie-esque wraith into Diana Morrison's flesh-and-blood enchantress.

The plot emerges as a hedonistic experiment in a design for living: showing each of the group striving to secure the maximum pleasure while doing each other as little damage as possible. Jealousy and violence (including a near-fatal shooting) flare periodically but never to cancel their mutual bond.

Rather, the bond intensifies to strangling point, in a plot hinging on eternal recurrences; so that the same situation, the same lines return after the passage of years between different characters until, in the musically central episode, the quartet line up for a round, each offering their own aspect of the pain of loving.

Lloyd Webber's score is built on this pattern of recurrence; it is honeycombed with motifs, which pass from character to character as they land in the same situation.

The craftsmanship is deft, but the musical material strikes me as timid and uninteresting. The opening number, "Love Changes Everything", consists of a blandly repeated six-note phrase over two chords. It then gets louder. Another innocuous little phrase accompanies George's favourite slogan, "Life goes on, love is free". Lloyd Webber then goes on to exploit this as if he had hit on the Grail motif from Parsifal.

Except in a circus number, and in a Latin-American knees-up for George's funeral, the score is lacking in rhythmic vitality. Where it does score is when it meshes in with the action in a style (thoroughly mastered by Trevor Nunn's cast) of conversational song; sometimes thrillingly elaborated as in a café scene to combine principals, a backing chorus, and a tinnily recorded pop song.

The company work wonders with Garnett's wooden characters, but the figure of Alex is irreclaimable, despite Michael Ball's vocal heroics. In their separate ways, Ann Crumb's sharp-featured, vocally supercharged Rose, and Kevin Colson's George reclaim what could have been a stickily sentimental work: Crumb through the unabashed egoism with which she develops into middle-age, and Colson by a show if irresistibly civilised charm which he finally discards, dying in an unambiguous paroxysm of jealous rage. He, more than anyone else, is reflected in Maria Bjørnson's scenic evocations of the crumbling elegance of the south of France, and the glimpses of distant mountains.

A toast to love: the vocally heroic Michael Ball (Alex)
and sharp-featured, supercharged Ann Crumb (Rose)

Irving Wardle, The Times


Copyright © 2002 M. Kniestedt. All rights reserved.