‘It is possible to have more than one emotion at the same time,” claims a tormented character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1989 musical. What’s true for lovers is true for critics. Seeing Jonathan O’Boyle’s spirited revival, transferred from Hope Mill in Manchester, I felt this was Lloyd Webber’s most beguiling score. Yet the show badly needs a librettist – none is credited – to trim the untidy narrative.
Based on a David Garnett novel, the show is Lloyd Webber’s equivalent of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in that it traces the vagaries of passion in a summer setting and has a female actor, Rose, as its protagonist. The score, with lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, is also a constant delight. I could listen all night to Love Changes Everything, made famous by Michael Ball, which is just as well since the three-chord song makes repeated appearances. The First Man You Remember, a father’s expression of love for his daughter, is a foxtrot of tender and insidious beauty. Rose’s final number, Anything But Lonely, is a terrific torch song about the terrors of solitude.
A musical, however, is more than a collection of songs and you feel that Lloyd Webber lacks the input of a producer-director like Harold Prince who, in Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, ruthlessly eliminated the inessential. The first half moves along quite nippily as it explores love’s labyrinth: the 17-year-old Alex is smitten with Rose, who deserts him for his art-forger uncle, George, who himself has a mistress in the shape of an Italian sculptor, Giulietta. But in the second half, which shuttles like the first between postwar Pau and Paris, one becomes a little weary of passion’s permutations. One particular scene, set in a Paris circus, seems irrelevant and Alex’s ultimate pairing with Giulietta comes out of nowhere. The show is clearly an endorsement of the novel’s carpe diem philosophy but, on stage, love has one too many aspects.
The piece is undeniably put across with great vigour. My one cavil about O’Boyle’s production is that, given the intimacy of the setting, it is too loud: even the two pianos and percussion seem heavily amplified. Kelly Price, however, is a revelation as Rose. She not only ages convincingly from the headstrong ingenue of the first half to the suave chatelaine of the second, but invests each song with specific emotion and suggests the neediness of a woman frightened of physical loneliness. Eleanor Walsh, as her 15-year-old-daughter with a disastrous crush on Alex, captures well the pangs of adolescence, and Madalena Alberto is all poised sophistication as the Venetian sculptor.
Alex, through whose eyes we see the action, is a tricky role in that he seems to grow older without ever fully growing up, but Felix Mosse endows him with grace and charm.
Although I wished Jerome Pradon as George made greater use of legato, especially in the hymn to his daughter, he pins down the abrasive selfishness of this louche old lech. Jason Denvir’s design, with its louvred screens and placards indicating the shifting locales, is also economical and effective. Overlong but blessed with some of Lloyd Webber’s most haunting melodies it is a show that leaves me as conflicted as any of the story’s wayward lovers.