Like so many of the big musicals, Whistle Down The Wind started life in a very different form. Mirroring the journey of The Phantom Of The Opera, Les Miserables and Oliver!, Mary Hayley Bell’s tale of three children who find a convict in their family barn and become convinced that he’s Jesus began life as a novel.
Bell’s 1959 book was adapted for the big screen just two years later by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall and starred her daughter, Hayley Mills, and in 2005 the film was included in the BFI’s list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.
However, less common is the fact that after the release of the film, the story was adapted not once but twice into a musical.
The best known is undoubtedly the 1996 version by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman, which ran in the West End for more than 1,000 performances and gave rise to the Boyzone hit No Matter What.
However, in the 1980s Russell Labey and Richard Taylor adapted the film into a musical for the National Youth Music Theatre.
Now, following a successful run of Labey and Taylor’s version in 2015, the Union Theatre in Union Street, Southwark is reviving the show for a 2019 Christmas run.
On the surface the story follows the three children as they discover the convict, then strive to protect their secret and care for him while news of his presence gradually spreads beyond their control.
However, Bell’s tale is really about the redeeming power of childhood belief, and how it can change a person – the power of the children’s belief here is strong enough that in some ways, at least to them, the convict does become Jesus.
Cathy’s father (played with conviction by Stuart Simons) is afraid for his children’s safety when he discovers who they have been spending time with, but even at his most emotional he respects the importance of their belief.
The convict starts out using their belief to persuade them to bring him food, but as the show develops, so too does his respect and care for them.
There is a sense, by the end of the show, that Cathy may even have realised that the convict is not the messiah, but still she clings to the notion that he is to protect the belief that she and the other children have developed.
It is always a challenge for an adult actor to credibly play a child, but director Sasha Regan has done well to find three accomplished young professionals to take on the roles of the three main characters.
Sadie Levett (Cathy), Tara Lucas (Nan) and George Hankers (Charles) blend with both the professional cast and the members of the Union Youth Theatre who make up the ensemble of children from the village
.The musical is somewhat episodic at times – almost inevitable when moving a relatively large group of children on and off the stage – and the narrative slows right down for what is intended as a comedy interlude when the village children assemble to present a performance of the nativity (Labey and Taylor could easily have dispensed with the attempted moment of light relief in the middle – the story is stronger without it).
However, as an alternative festive show which is less about glitter and Santa Claus and more about what it really means to believe in something, Whistle Down The Wind is a great addition to the capital’s theatrical celebrations this Christmas.