As a precursor to the rest of this review, I want to shout out a department that never gets a mention in criticism, and that’s ticketing! The team at Regent’s Park Open Air have got the most sophisticated system going, and receiving my tickets quite honestly has never been so joyful. (I got a text the morning of the show, which opened up my tickets, and I just pressed a button to share it with my friend- what a concept!)
So admittedly, I was in a front-of-house induced good mood, which carried through to the curtain call of Carousel, when I wryly texted a friend ‘interesting ambitious theatre! In this economy!’ I was a bit dizzy and high off the feeling of being presented with a production of this scale, which had done something genuinely interesting and exciting with its resources. It feels like such a treat! I say this because great art requires taking risks, and the post-pandemic theatre-making environment has succeeded in crushing many such ambitions.
Onto the show. There’s a bunch of tensions in this work, and some of the reading I’ve done around Carousel seems quite inconsolable, asking How On Earth Will They Reconcile the sumptuous score, some of the best music in any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, with its pretty dire plot. The attraction of Julie Jordan towards the violent Billy Bigelow, they exclaim, simply does not make sense!
But I’m entirely on board with the performances from Declan Bennett and Carly Bawden. At one point he says to her ‘Looking up at me with that kid face… like you trust me….’ Because of course she does. She walks into love with her heart wide open. Because love is vulnerability and trusting someone you don’t know. There’s no accounting for what draws people to each other, and ‘If I Loved You’ is a standout moment, as two people look at each other, politely distanced, the empty night full of every future they could imagine for themselves.
Yet Carousel is a musical in no small part about physical abuse and gendered violence. As the opening dance tells us through rag-doll choreography, it starts when they’re little boys. There are some big headline changes to the book in this production, there is no line that says the ‘slap felt like a kiss’ for instance, but I’m more interested in some of the smaller shifts, that make this not only a production tackling an issue, but a more complex exploration of cruelty and abuse, and how it exists in a community and place. A particular highlight is ‘Blow Low’, which sees shirtless sailors jeering and squaring up to each other before jubilantly ballet dancing in a torrent of thrown beer dregs. Masculinity is in flux, and people can take more than one role in a community.
Part of what makes this such a classy adaptation is that it’s very grounded. From the brass band opening (though they got me with that, I love a brass band) every inch of it feels pulled from a real place. It’s visceral and woody, knotted in rope and cloth. Tom Scutt’s design does some heavy lifting, providing a gargantuan slanted decking which characters rest on, climb up and tumble down. Characters are constantly upended by their surroundings, and are constantly landing on the most solid ground they can.
It feels like the show is more interested in the myriad reasons that people do the things they do, the forces which act upon them, and who gets to be punished or redeemed for it. The sexual and financial entitlement that leads some people to get away with it – Julie’s employer who desires her and fires her – and some not.
There are some real moments of light and joy in this production too. Christina Modestou as Carrie is a fizzling sensation, and Joanna Riding leads a rendition of ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ that is impossible to resist.
(Also worth a substantial mention is that this show sounded GREAT. I don’t know how the sound team achieved the level of clarity they did in a theatre without walls or a roof but wow it’s good to hear words isn’t it?)
After a tragic death scene and a 16-year gap, Billy gets an opportunity to visit his daughter Louise for one day. Amie Hibbert dances through Drew McOnie’s tornado-like choreography with both the strength and vulnerability of a young woman pushed by forces darker and more powerful than herself.
However, after a struggle between father and daughter, and the famous slap, Billy is lost to the audience. He has no more moments, he disappears to a shadowy corner of the stage, he doesn’t whisper in anyone’s ear, and he gets no redemption. In the reprise of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, with the women facing forward in a carousel of bodies, Louise stands apart, scared, outcast or triumphant.
Carousel is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre till 25th September. More info here.