Reviews West End & Central Published 20 August 2012

Carousel

Barbican Theatre ⋄ 15th August - 15th September 2012

A ride of a lifetime.

Julia Rank

“Soon you’d leave me. Off you would go in the mist of day”, Carousel’s lovers Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow sing when contemplating how they’d feel if they loved each other. The themes of abandonment and isolation run through Jo Davies’s supremely sensitive and flawlessly staged (and paced) production: the show opens with a glimpse into Billy’s childhood with his loving but unreliable father who disappears into the fairground crowds, leaving his son to fend for himself in an unsympathetic environment where blows come more naturally than words. We see teenage Billy’s cycle of casual flings before he catches the eye of the woman who changes his life and both stand still in the middle of the bustling fairground, completely stunned by what’s come over them.

Davies’s decision to move the show thirty years forward into the early twentieth century is inspired. In this traditional working-class fishing village gradually succumbing to wider social change, Davies creates an almost seamless collage of the disciplines of dialogue, song and dance (superb choreography by Kay Shepherd and Kim Brandstrup). The principals provide the show’s heart and Timothy Burke’s impeccable chorus the backbone. In Anthony Ward’s airy yet claustrophobic designs, carousel horses glide on underneath a halo of light bulbs (by Bruno Poet), while there’s very little privacy in Julie’s cousin Nettie’s run-down oceanside cottage.

On the rotating set, scenes feed into each other organically. The set pieces have real momentum, particularly Billy’s film noir-ish journey to the backyard of heaven where John Woodvine’s firm but fair film director Starkeeper gives him the opportunity to glimpse his daughter Louise (a luminous Beverley Grant) through grainy film footage. Davies also trusts the material to work its magic without embellishment; there’s a palpable sense of euphoria as Billy and Julie fall into each other’s arms at the end of the Bench Scene as if by a magnetic pull and he carries her off stage, the kind of romantic culmination that would conclude any other musical, but is only the beginning of this story.

Katherine Manley is the most headstrong Julie I’ve ever seen and perhaps the closest to Ferenc Molnár’s original. A dreamer but no waif-like child bride who’s “imposed on and deluded”, she’s a young woman who has no qualms about standing up for herself and grabs the opportunity to lead a more exciting existence. As the bad ‘un Julie can’t turn away from, American baritone Michael Todd Simpson conveys all the requisite seedy bohemianism and moodiness, as well as the vulnerability that underlies Billy’s swaggering exterior. My only quibble is the marked contrast between his speaking and singing voices – his rough New England accent turns into polished conservatoire tones as soon as he begins singing, making for a disjunction between the text and music.

Close attention is paid to the enduring friendship between Julie and Carrie, two mill girls whose lives unexpectedly diverge: one a young widow and single mother making do and the other a wealthy housewife for whom reliable birth control can’t be invented soon enough. Sarah Tynan is a natural musical comedy performer and gives a gorgeous performance as Carrie. She and Manley are perfectly in tune with one another, listening and responding to everything. Tynan is also ideally matched with Joseph Shovelton as the social climbing, hyper-organised Mr Snow (complete with a childbirth schedule for his bride-to-be), a New England Mr Pooter of sorts turned Captain von Snow, leading his army of children through town to the sound of his whistle.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sublime score is done full justice by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (conducted by James Holmes), making it difficult to imagine a stronger production musically, and the wonderful Yvonne Howard as Nettie sings ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in all its stirring glory. Is Carousel opera or musical theatre? What this production proves is that it’s undoubtedly one of the all-time greats in any genre and an evening of tremendous intelligence, empathy and pure class bustin’ out all over.

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Julia Rank

Julia is a Londoner who recently completed a MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College. Resolutely living in the past until further notice, Julia finds enjoyment in exploring art galleries and museums, dabbling in foreign languages, rummaging in second hand bookshops, and cats.

Carousel Show Info


Produced by Opera North/Chatelet de Paris

Directed by Jo Davies

Written by Oscar Hammerstein II

Choreography by Kay Shepherd/Kim Brandstrup

Cast includes Michael Todd Simpson, Katherine Manley, Sarah Tynan, Yvonne Howard, Joseph Shovelton, Michael Rouse, Candida Benson, John Woodvine, Beverley Grant, William Kenning (note: casts vary)

Original Music Richard Rodgers

Link http://www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/event-detail.asp?ID=12876

Running Time 3hrs (one interval)

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