The Union Theatre’s production of Whistle Down the Wind is surely one of the more unique and atmospheric performances of this musical. Adapted by Russell Labey and Richard Taylor, and based on both the novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the subsequent film by Richard Attenborough, the play tells the story of life in a small village in 1950s Lancashire, where the discovery of a man hidden in Cathy and her siblings’ barn is thought, by the children, to be the return of Jesus Christ. This charming production follows the village’s tensions between the children’s naïve innocence and the weathered cynicism of the adults, in moments both comic and moving.
Under Sasha Regan’s direction, the daily rhythms of life in the village are subtly evoked by both the understated design of the piece by Nik Corrall, and its interaction with the unique space of the theatre itself. The set is simple, and the live ‘band’ is composed of just piano, violin, flute and horn; yet it is this simplicity that gives the piece its authenticity and charm. Against a brick-walled backdrop, the performance is fused together by the band’s haunting harmonies, and it is the set design and music that really fuel this play.
The villagers are composed of a healthy ensemble, and the chorus pieces undoubtedly stand out in terms of performance strength. Despite some vocally weaker individual performances holding the play back slightly, the charming story and its overall execution is enough to fall back on. The scenes between The Man, played by Callum McArdle, and the children are especially moving and bring to light the extraordinary belief that children can possess. A stand-out example of this is ‘Angels’ in the second act, which demonstrates how all the elements of theatre – story, music, setting – can unite to give a really touching performance.
What makes this production special, however, is its fusion of atmospheres. There is a real mixture of ambiances in the theatre, which itself occupies a space beneath the arches of a railway. You can’t help but notice the real underground, electric kind of vibe of the Union Theatre, even during the performance, as it is accompanied by the slow, occasional rumble of the trains passing by overhead. It is a testament to the strength of this play that, as you are reminded of the world outside, you remain caught up in the story and are also subconsciously made aware of the relevance it still has today.
Whistle Down the Wind is playing the Union Theatre until 21 February. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website.