Michael Crawford has been persuaded to fly half way around the world to return to the West End stage and its clear that the public still have a strong affection for him.
Leaving his home in New Zealand he’s starring in a new production of The Go-Between which opened on Tuesday night at London’s Apollo Theatre and is due to run until October.
The 74-year-old actor plays an elderly Leo Colston who, as a young boy, acted as a postman delivering secret love letters between a young deb and the rough hewn farmer who lived next door to her.
And I’m pleased to say that Crawford’s singing voice is just as powerful. Of course, time has taken its toll and there is the occasional wobble but, overall, he’s still enthralling to listen to.
Throughout the play his character haunts the past, a bystander to what happened to Leo when he was on the cusp of becoming a 13-year-old.
As such he spends almost the entire performance watching the story unfold, shadowing his younger self, and looking troubled, with only a few minutes acting time in the final scene.
Am I greedy in expecting more from this popular, yet now aged, star? You can’t help thinking that he has only been hired to be a big name draw and put bums on seats.
The Go-Between is billed as a musical but don’t expect big production numbers and the odd dance routine. Roger Haines’ production is a chamber musical, and I’m not sure that it entirely works.
This is a strange beast where almost all of David Wood’s dialogue is sung. The only outright musical number is the glorious Butterfly, sung magnificently by Crawford.
But, charming and as well acted as this show is, it plods along at a snail’s pace (in fact, the second act, after the interval, begins with such a lengthy pause that I thought someone had forgotten their dialogue). It may win over audiences on a regional tour but it is going to have its work cut out pulling a West end audience for the next four months.
Tim Lutkin’s murky lighting design, which creates a dim, hazy light throughout, doesn’t help. The audience is left struggling to imagine this Norfolk country house bathed in sunlight during an impossibly hot summer.
LP Hartley’s classic story is well told but strangely cold and unemotional (whereas Alan Bates and Julie Christie positively sizzled on screen). We just can’t feel the frisson of this illicit and secretive affair.
The elderly Leo has returned to Brandham Hall, near the city of Norwich, in 1950. Crawford, dressed courtesy of Alan Bennett’s wardrobe, is frail, haunted, and worn down from years of guilt.
The ghosts of his past demand answers and, before you know it, we’re back to 1900 when young Leo, just a couple of weeks shy of his 13th birthday, is staying for three weeks with Marcus, a school mate.
The Maudsley family, who live at the Hall, consist of a terrifying matriarch (a fierce Issy Van Randwyck); her ineffective husband; Marcus, brother Denys, and their lovely sister Marian.
Young Leo, whose father has died, is a fish out of water, unsure of social etiquette, naive and unschooled in the ways of the world. Marian takes him under her wing and the impressionable boy falls in love, as only a child can.
But Marian has her own problems. Her social climbing mother wants the girl married off to a rich, and horribly scarred viscount, but she is conducting a covert affair with the farmer next door, the virile and impossibly handsome Ted (played by the impossibly handsome Stuart Ward who sets hearts a flutter at a stroke by stripping off to swim).
This is all very Lady Chatterley’s Lover and little Leo finds himself at the centre of the tryst when he agrees to act as a go-between, ferrying love letters back and forth.
Gemma Sutton’s Marian and Ted “spoon” quietly off stage while the rest of the cast, looking splendid in butter muslin and a variety of summer cream costumes, get on with life – until a misunderstanding, a child’s innocence and an honest mistake, lead to tragedy.
William Thompson, as Leo, is only 13 but a real star in the making. He’s previously appeared in The Sound of Music, Oliver! and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is an impressive CV for a boy stating out in the business.
Together with his pal Marcus, played at my performance by Archie Stevens (there are three Leos and three boys playing Marcus) these two lads are the stars of the show. Their confidence and winning personalities, not to mention delightful singing, is a real joy.
The Go-Between isn’t a bad play, it’s just not up to West End standards.
It plays at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, until October 15.
LP Hartley’s The Go-Between returns to the stage as a chamber musical with Michael Crawford but, while well acted, Roger Haine’s direction fails to find the passion in a story of illicit love.