For a musical so often (unfairly) criticised for being dated in its outlook, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest work has probably had more London outings than any of the partnership’s other shows in recent years despite the shadow of Nicholas Hytner’s sainted National Theatre production never being far away. Lindsay Posner presented a West End revival in 2008 which featured Alexandra Silber’s once-in-a-lifetime Julie Jordan; there was a messy 1950s version at the Landor in 2011, and Jo Davies’s masterful rendering for Opera North feels like only yesterday.
Having previously produced work including Jekyll and Hyde and The Revenge of Sherlock Holmes, Morphic Graffiti have turned their attention to a masterpiece that demands the utmost sensitivity and the highest musical values, a test of any company’s ambitions.
Luke Fredericks’s production is mightily enjoyable if not beautifully sung nor as radically different as it perhaps thinks it is. Opera North transposed the action from the 1870s to the eve of the First World War and the Depression-era setting here exploits the uneducated, unskilled anti-hero’s desperation but contradicts the comment about how “a man who can’t get work these days is just bone lazy”. The Arcola’s three-sided seating plan also has its limitations in a piece in which subtext is key and every murmur, pause, gesture and sigh has a meaning of its own.
A woman puts the finishing touches on a white dress for her daughter’s high school graduation (perhaps the one she wore for her own graduation). A radio announcer tells stories of couples miraculously reunited after being separated by the war. At the bottom of her mending basket, she finds a dress that she never expected to see again, the one she wore for the most exhilarating and devastating experiences of her life. The ticket inside the pocket is the catalyst to the chain of events that led to a romance that blossomed as if by magic but was no fairytale in its outcome.
Fredericks’s staging and Lee Proud’s choreography is particularly strong in suggesting the seedily exotic allure of the carnival with its array of circus skills and flashing colours. The mill gates are transformed into the carousel ride that beckons Billy’s arm around Julie waist, highlighting the transition between the carefree nature of carnival life and the responsibilities that come with love and marriage.
Tim Rogers’s Billy is a roughened-up pretty boy whose stage presence reads as more of a King Arthur than a Billy Bigelow (it would unfair to be too critical of his strained vocal performance as he seemed to be suffering from laryngitis). Gemma Sutton makes a hauntingly soulful Julie with a steely resolve and a clear, expressive voice. The epic kiss that seals their whirlwind romance is disappointingly chaste (Opera North strongly implied that he carried her off straight to bed), as is Billy’s muted reaction to Julie’s pregnancy. Fredericks takes the liberty of having Julie overhear part of Billy’s outpouring of tenderness towards his unborn daughter, which undermines her comment about how ‘I always knew everything you were thinking’, and also has her embrace her dead husband’s spectre (that I liked).
The secondary couple are more suited to the full-bodied Rodgers and Hammerstein sound. As the eager, tactless Carrie, Vicki Lee-Taylor resembles a young Debbie Reynolds and Joel Montague cuts a burly and pungent Enoch Snow (in some ways, he’s more Billy-like than Rogers is), a domestic tyrant under his veneer of entrepreneurial respectability. Amanda Minihan plays Nettie as a musical hall turn (much like Lesley Garrett’s interpretation of the character) and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is out of her range. There’s a bizarre reading of Mrs Mullin by Valerie Cutko (it’s astonishing how few directors get the Billy/Mrs Mullin relationship right) as an ultra-masculine carnival grotesque, but the suggestion that being a carnival barker and rent boy aren’t mutually exclusive is probably all too accurate.
Most poignant is the idea of how a contemporary audience would have responded to the promise of a brave new post-war world. An intimate encounter with these extraordinary characters is a privilege and for anyone who has ever been one of life’s Julies, there is no other musical that can pack the same emotional punch.