Re:View – ‘Love Story’

London, The Arts

Howard Goodall is one of the nation’s most consistently interesting composers. His sacred music and chorale work is admired, his scores for ‘The Hired Man’ and other ‘plays with music’ are sumptuous and heartfelt. His music for the WW2 drama ‘Girlfriends’ is masterful (a snippet is lurking around on this site somewhere). But in coupling an elegant chamber score to Erich Segal’s weepfest, a potboiler that made an equally awful film, something has gone awry.

The problem starts with a book that opens with a funeral and has absolutely nowhere to go, and very little to say. Keeping the piece in its 1970 period only shows up the source’s limitations. What does feisty Jennifer see in stuffy bore Oliver? It’s unappealing for modern audiences to watch a bright, poor girl with a scholarship surrender her dream to become a housewife. But instead of resolving the problems with the source material, the play reproduces them (maybe it was a stipulation of the ‘franchise’ – if we can call it that – not to touch the original.) The only other major characters are their respective fathers, who get no closure from Jennifer’s death or even any decent dialogue.

Goodall’s score is a winner, filled with clever grace-notes and moments of immense charm, but feels too dry for material that’s already flat and conservative, as if he was restrained from really letting go. At one point Francis Lai’s original soundtrack theme emerges, and is so robust that the other characters can only sing around it. That original title track hammered its bathos into the ground in the movie, beating its audience into submission. The story needs music that will do this unashamedly, but that would require a degree of vulgarity which Goodall, with his tasteful chamber harmonies, is loathe to explore – who did he think was coming to the show?

And this exposes what has always been Goodall’s one flaw – banal lyrics. He needs a lyricist with some vinegar and wit to match his music. Instead he gets someone whose opening line is ‘What can you say about a girl…’ – summoning my immediate response, ‘Well, if you can’t think of anything we’re all in trouble.’

Two scenes fly; a robust hockey fan chorus and a patter-song in which the duo cook an entire spaghetti bolognese onstage. The play ends as it began, at a funeral, which left the audience to shuffle out unmoistened, anxious to get home. In short, if you liked ‘Love Story’ you’ll feel emotionally short-changed, if you like the composer you’ll feel trapped in a supermarket paperback.