Arcola Theatre, London
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom as adapted by Benjamin F Glazer
Directed by Luke Fredericks
|Tim Rogers and Gemma Sutton
Producers Morphic Graffiti present a re-engineered Carousel at London’s Arcola Theatre. With the blessing of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s publishers, they have pitched the tale around the time of the Great Depression, with a costume and style that sets the era apart from traditional turn of the 20th century stagings and it’s an interpretation that works, for the sense of poverty and depravation that surrounded the clapboard housed whaling communities of New England has long been a consistent theme of the show.
The time shift however is only an adaptation of style rather than substance. The grand human struggles of love and redemption, crime and endeavour that underpin Ferenc Molnar’s original play have a timelessness that speaks to us today – with perhaps the one exception being the un-conditional love that Julie Jordan feels towards Billy Bigelow whilst demonstrably accepting her lot as the victim of his domestic violence. Julie’s is a love that is tested in a way that is at best outmoded and at worst a misogynist’s charter.
But it remains Julie’s love and Billy’s futile doomed hopes to better himself that are the engine room of this show. Gemma Sutton is Julie and in the intimate cockpit of the Arcola, her expressions of passion and yearning towards her future husband are played out with pinpoint definition. Sutton masks the steel of her character in layers of hesitant tenderness and when this is married to her exquisite vocal work, the fusion is musical theatre bliss. When she sings If I Love You, her take on the complex melody is pitch perfect and later in act two, when her character, faltering, stumbles choked in her grief and unable to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone until Nettie takes over, the poignancy of the moment is at once both exquisite and unbearable.
Opposite Sutton, Australian Tim Rogers brings an energy to Billy that suggests Hugh Jackman’s Curly, performed at the National Theatre in 1998. Rogers’ technical excellence manifest through his irreverent energy is another treat of a performance rarely found with such intense beauty on London’s off West End theatre scene.
And around these two lead performers beats a company that drips with perfection. There follows a name check of the most memorable, but all the company were no less than outstanding. Vicki Lee Taylor’s Carrie Pipperidge is a confection of perfect poise, presence and tone, whilst Joe Montague’s Enoch Snow nails the humerous foibles of the pompous but ambitious puritanical procreator. Joseph Connor, Katrina Dix and Susie Porter all display a balletic or acrobatic talent that is never less than breathtaking. A twirly-moustachioed Paul Hutton plays all manner of male authority roles with panache, whilst Amanda Minihan never falters as an inspiring Nettie, Richard Kent chills as a spiv Jigger and Valerie Cutko defines the wise yet complex cravings of carousel owner Mrs Mullins
The show’s design is perhaps the most visionary interpretation of low-budget scenery to be found, with the emotional impact of the opening Carousel Waltz reducing me to tears in minutes. The brilliant use of simple gates and boxes, combined with an acrobatic movement of the company that suggested a hint of Broadway’s Pippin is visionary dance work from Lee Proud and amongst all the numbers, Proud’s talent shines. The act two ballet in particular, a challenge to mount on a more generously proportioned stage let alone the Arcola, proving yet another display of masterful movement.
Stripped down to a 5 piece band, Andrew Corcoran gives Carousel’s timeless melodies a makeover. A subtle use of flute and bass is enchanting, whilst the harp accompaniment to You’ll Never Walk Alone is as subtly inspiring as it is heartbreaking.
Luke Frederick has fashioned a production of flawless technique and artistic excellence. Shows this good don’t come along that often and Carousel deserves a West End transfer. Whilst it plays at the Arcola until July 19th, don’t miss it.
Plays until July 19th.