Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent musical, Cinderella, morphed into a cautionary tale of self-sabotaging PR as the peevish peer publicly berated his first cast and then effectively sacked their successors via social media. It’s a relief to sneak into his back catalogue with this relatively unloved 1996 show, reshaped by the Watermill as a taut fable of faith and fear.
Lloyd Webber, lyricist Jim Steinman and their collaborators shift Mary Hayley Bell’s source novel from rural England to smalltown Louisiana in 1959, heaped with gingham, graft and terror of the hereafter. Simon Kenny’s planked walls extend from the snug wooden auditorium, making the whole building into the hellfire chapel where the townsfolk gather for a weekly scolding, or the barn where an escaped prisoner hides out.
The barn belongs to a family reeling from a mother’s death. Grief fills their lives, until teenage Swallow (sweet-voiced Lydia White) discovers the fugitive (inked and grimy Robert Tripolino). He’s a murderer dodging a manhunt, but she and the local children take him for Jesus. This isn’t wholly plausible – they see his injuries as stigmata – but their secret gives the kids a jolt of agency. The man plays on Swallow’s naive desire for transformation: “You can help me with the second coming.”
Even these tense conversations aren’t private in Tom Jackson Greaves’ busy, physically fluid production. The cast double as musicians, making for a crowded stage. They press in on intimate scenes – strings and woodwind keeping up a prying tremolo – and circle round the fugitive. The songs include No Matter What, later a hit for Boyzone, and the standout in a strong ensemble is recent graduate Chrissie Bhima, belting and limber in cat-eye glasses, as a woman yearning to break free.
Apocalyptic language runs through the hardscrabble community’s veins: faith liberates and hobbles them in equal measure. They endure difficulty (one unconsoling number is called It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This) while they wait on revelations. A hectic revivalist meeting promises snake-handling, but it’s a serpentine Tripolino who personifies the coils of sin as the production closes in on its fiery end.
At the Watermill theatre, Newbury, until 10 September.