Last Updated on August 11, 2021
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Musical ‘Carousel’
One of the highlights of London summers has to be an evening at Regents Park Open Air Theatre watching a show in their iconic auditorium underneath the stars, whatever the weather. In our case, for the opening night of Carousel, it did rain a little but the show went on…
The theatre has a long history of bringing top-class shows including an annual musical to the stage, and this year is no exception. In 2020 they managed to stage their big summer musical, but because of social distancing regulations it meant it couldn’t be the scheduled revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical ‘Carousel’, but instead a concert version of the previous hit ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
However, this year the classic post-war Broadway musical ‘Carousel’ originally set in Maine in 1945 has made it to stage. Flamboyant artistic director Timothy Sheader has reinvented this great tale of small-town tragedy removing it from its past and setting it in a Northern British coastal town with the actors using their authentic accents.
Tom Scutt’s effective set design is a stark and simple large wooden revolving stage, which is flanked by a wooden ridged slope that cleverly creates different levels, whilst the orchestra sits at its rear. There are no set changes and locations are only enhanced by the use of props. The costumes, designed by Molly Einchcomb and co-designed by Tom Scutt, create a suitable dourness and a good timeless depiction of working people.
Carousel tells the story of two young women living in a working-class community – the fresh-faced Julie Jordan (Carly Bawden) and the upbeat Carrie Pipperidge (Christina Modestou) both of who work together in a mill. On an evening out at the fairground Julie meets charismatic Billy Bigelow (Declan Bennett); the carousel barker, a handsome man whose job it is to attract the customers.
They fall in love and quickly marry much to Carrie’s disapproval who warns her against Billy who by this time has lost his job at the Carousel. Carrie makes a more sensible decision and matches with the amusingly geeky Enoch Snow (John Pfumojena) who dreams of running a sardine factory.
The marriage quickly goes downhill and behind doors, Julie is being beaten at the hand of her husband. This is not a light and fluffy musical with romance at its heart but a tale that deals with difficult themes of domestic violence and coercion which make queasy watching for the modern-day audience.
The original production uncomfortably allowed the audience to empathise with Billy regardless of his abusive behaviour, but here in its more contemporary context Sheader has attempted to tell it from the woman’s perspective. Sadly, it’s a timeless tale of girls falling for the magnetic bad boy and yet loving him regardless of his brutal actions and often not having the strength and support to step away.
This comes at a time when domestic violence is at an all-time high which became more public knowledge during lockdown. The program shockingly draws attention to the Crime Survey for England and Wales which between March 2019 and March 2020 it was reported that 1.6 million women and 757,000 men had experienced domestic violence abuse crimes. But worse still during the first lockdown (between April and June 2020), there was a 65% increase in calls to the National Domestic Violence Abuse helpline.
However, amongst the darker themes, there is a wonderfully vibrant and joyful musical. Drew McOnie’s choreography is an absolute winner, fresh, witty, gritty and energised, it’s a complete triumph. It’s complemented by Tom Deerling’s cleverly re-orchestrated music which brings both delight and atmospheric stirring tones. He has omitted the lush strings and instead incorporated a brass band which dramatically takes the stage in the opening scene.
There are some lovely moments including the impassioned opener, which the ensemble delivers with infectious energy clearly defining the sexes and setting the narrative to come.
I was especially was moved by Carly Bawden’s beautiful voice in Julie and Billy’s heart-rendering duet, ‘If I Loved You’ and later in ‘What’s The Use of Wond’rin’. The characterful Nettie played with great charm by Joanna Riding, who is Julie’s aunt gives a wonderfully moving rendition of the all-time classic ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which later proves to be a poignant finale song as the women one by women turn to face the audience leaving the men in the dark.
I thought the second half went a little astray…. Billy having discovered that Julie is pregnant and unable to provide is persuaded by Jigger to take part in a robbery during the annual clam bake. When it all goes wrong, awash with shame he takes his life, only to be resurrected. A dreamlike sequence takes place where Billy witnesses his 16-year-old daughter Louise (played with great aplomb by newcomer Natasha May-Thomas) perform an emotive dance sequence. Billy is able to observe her vulnerability in the face of aggressive and manipulative men, only then to be confronted about his own propensity for violence by a group of women.
The modern-day Carousel has its faults within the confines of the original script, however with its strong physically expressive cast, uplifting score, spirited direction and stunning choreography it successfully takes you on a powerful emotional rollercoaster. A perfect way to spend a summers evening.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, to September 25
BOX OFFICE INFORMATION
Box Office 0333 400 3562* | openairtheatre.com
Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NU
Lines open Mon-Fri 9am – 8pm / Sat 10am – 8pm / Sun & Bank Holidays 10am – 6pm.
For other productions, this season at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, check our preview