Michael Crawford famously originated the title role in The Phantom of the Opera. Now, 30 years on, he is back in the West End as the big name in The Go-Between, a new musical (developed at the regional West Yorkshire Playhouse). What’s refreshing is that, far from being a mega showbiz spectacular, composer Richard Taylor and lyricist David Wood’s adaptation of L.P. Hartley’s novel is a comparatively small-scale affair – in fact, not far off a sung-through chamber opera.
Since this is also the elegiac musical equivalent of a memory play, Crawford’s Leo Colston is an elderly bachelor haunted by ghostly belle-époque figures – the ladies all creamy lace and curvaceous bustles, as if they've stepped out of a Merchant Ivory film, except, when they open their mouths, it's more like Benjamin Britten crossed with Stephen Sondheim. Sometimes evoking English folk song with a mellifluous purity, sometimes more darkly edgy, the cast’s harmonies are solely accompanied by a grand piano (played, onstage, by the virtuosic Nigel Lilley).
What Crawford's Colston is recollecting is the golden but doomed summer of 1900 when he spent his school holidays as an awestruck 12-year-old guest at an English country pile. Drifting back into that deceptively idyllic world, he watches his younger self serving as a messenger boy, naively carrying illicit messages between the lord of the manor’s captivating daughter, Marian, and a tenant farmer named Ted. Their forbidden romance ends tragically as Marian is meant to be betrothed to Viscount Trimingham, an injured Boer War veteran who's marking time as the Maudsleys' other houseguest – his unnerving mix of decency and menace captured here by Stephen Carlile.
Roger Haines' production looks quite beautiful: an eerily translucent chamber, like a gilded mansion that has fallen into tarnished decay with grasses growing through its floorboards. Haines' directing also inclines towards physical theatre. Soaring birds are evoked by a flock of wooden coat hangers that skeletally represent a tailor's shop as well, when Gemma Sutton's cosseting Marian procures a Lord Fauntleroyish suit for the young Leo.
The physical-theatre elements can seem a bit undeveloped. There are cloying and melodramatic moments, and it is surely a bit tawdry to engineer a scene in which the fine actor Stuart Ward, as Ted, has to pose topless, like a stud, spotlit and dripping wet. Some might equally be distracted by the fact that Crawford, kitted out in tweedy jacket and tortoiseshell specs, looks peculiarly like Alan Bennett (or as Frank Spencer might put it, "Oooh, Bennett!").
Ultimately, though, his performance is touchingly sincere and quietly impressive. Whilst not at full-throttle vocally, the septuagenarian star (who has battled with ME) is totally surefooted, constantly onstage. The child-performer Luka Green, who played little Leo at the performance I attended, is also remarkably accomplished. That said, the snobbery and conflicting loyalties that twist this tale of lost innocence into a tragedy could be brought into sharper focus, and the reminiscing structure becomes a bind, such that this dramatisation never quite springs into life.