REVIEW: Carousel, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Carousel Arcola Theatre
Gemma Sutton and Tim Rogers in Carousel at the Arcola Theatre

Arcola Theatre
2 July 2014

Rodgers and Hammerstein were a romantic pair but they had other interests too. These surface in different ways in their famous collaborations. The Sound Of Music deals with pure, almost chaste, love; Cinderella deals with chased love; The King and I and South Pacific both deal with forbidden love; Flower Drum Song about traditional and unexpected love; Oklahoma deals with lusty young love as does State Fair; Pipe Dream deals with loveless sex.

Often considered the prettiest, the most romantic of the duo’s repertoire, Carousel deals in lust and abuse. Beneath that sparkly seductively tuneful Carousel anthem, blood pumps, fevers rise and appetites are sated.

Director Luke Fredericks, whose revelatory interpretation of Carousel is now playing at the intimate Arcola Theatre in a production by Morphic Graffitti, clearly understands this and the production is jammed full of sex, lust and anger. I have seen dozens of productions of Carousel but never has it made as much sense or seemed so coherent and magical as it does in Fredericks’ hands.

Partly, this is because budgetary restrictions have made necessary a small scale approach to everything. The audience are so close, the playing has to work, to be true, especially the most intimate and difficult scenes. Fredericks succeeds in meeting this challenge and constantly surprising the audience with risqué flourishes worthy of any Carry On gang film but as though they were written by Alan Bennett : respectable, slightly thrilling naughtiness which is genuinely funny, appealing and sexy.

Stewart Chalesworth’s designs are everything this production needs, ensuring a fluidity of movement between scenes and a true sense of the poverty in which the characters live and from which they aspire to escape. Clever evocations of domestic scenes, a truly lovely impression of a swing affixed to a tree, a shipyard, an island, a home, the carnival grounds and then the Starkeeper’s domain, the back doors to heaven – Charlesworth creates them all, dots them with realistic and effective costumes leaving ample room for the energetic and exhilarating choreography provided by Lee Proud.

Andrew Corcoran shines in Maestro mode: the score is played well and sung fabulously, although sometimes quite differently from the way one would expect from recordings and other productions. There are no self-indulgent tempi here; the score is played and sung with an almost breathless, intoxicating gusto. The small band plays with accuracy and brio (one small orchestral glitch in the Soliloquy was the only noticeable blemish) and the orchestrations with emphasis on Harp and Woodwind are astute, perfect.

Often audiences want roles sung a particular way, associating a particular sound with their ‘proper’ enjoyment of the score. Personally, I have always favoured a Billy who could do the great Mozart baritone roles, a big man with a big booming full-bodied voice, all chocolate and strength. I have always favoured a Nettie who could also do justice to Mama Rose: a big hearty voice, with a powerful belt.

But as both Angela Lansbury (Gypsy) and Whoopi Goldberg (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) have shown on Broadway, different styles and voices can be as effective or more effective in revivals of works once thought had to be done a certain way. In Sweeney Todd, you could not get more vocally and dramatically different turns than those given in recent times by Caroline O’Connor, Imelda Staunton or Emma Thompson – yet each was triumphant in its own way.

Sometimes, though, having the right voice means losing everything else the character needs to achieve on stage in performance. Here they might not always be the perceived vocal ideal for the role, but the entire cast sings as well as it acts and dances: with unerring precision of character.

Fredericks proves in his production that an inventive, ingenious mind can make new interpretations of musical theatre roles work even if they go against type. And thank God for that. Finding new life in old work is one of the great joys of the theatre.

As ever, the secret to the good work is the casting – and Fredericks has made no mistakes here. Although perhaps unexpected and unusual casting in some respects, this is a solid, remarkable group of performers who give superb, thought-through and richly detailed performances. While evoking period, they are all modern in approach and this helps the alchemy significantly.

Tim Rogers is easily the best Billy Bigelow I have ever seen. Impossibly manly, brutal, lustful, languid, overtly self-assured but inwardly self-hating, beguiling and desperate: he is the epitome of the rough diamond, with every facet open for inspection. He makes this difficult character totally understandable, completely real. He sings beautifully, his rich high baritone/tenor always in tune, always in sync with his characterisation and often surprising in its tenderness and range. His Soliloquy was sensationally judged, incredibly effective and, rightly, stopped the show. And the duets with Gemma Sutton’s Julie showed Rogers at his most lyrical.

Rogers is given a deal of support for his Billy from two unexpected sources: Jigger and Mr Snow. In this production, Jigger is a swell, a bad-un who dresses for effect and pretence and is the personification of sleaze, slime and seduction. This Jigger would clearly take his pleasure anywhere with anyone. As played by Richard Kent, Jigger has nothing in common with Billy, is far worse a creature than Billy and offers shudders and smiles in almost equal measure. Like a sophisticated rat, he scampers through proceedings, or is still and silent in the shadows, always evaluating opportunities. His near successful attempt to seduce Carrie and his suave obliteration of Billy’s unearnt fortune by cheating at cards amply demonstrate Kent’s skill and importance to the narrative.

Because the key thing about Kent’s terrific turn is that you clearly see a man to whom Billy feels inferior and, foolishly, seeks to aspire in at least his fortunes. The clarity of Jigger’s character helps illuminate the shadier parts of Billy’s. And his voice adds lustre every time he sings.

Equally, and quite unusually, the darker aspects of Mr Snow are also fleshed out here. Joel Montague provides a hearty, ambitious fisherman (with a terrific vocal strength and tone) who simply tramples over Vicki Lee Taylor’s (perfectly delicious) Carrie. He imposes his wishes upon her in every way, deciding their future, forcing endless children upon her regardless of her own desires, cutting across her, assuming control of her destiny and showing no interest in what she thinks or feels. This Mr Snow abuses his wife far more than Billy does his.

Seen in this light, Billy’s violence comes from his own self-hatred issues and, in the face of Jigger’s sleaze and Mr Snow’s totalitarian regime, it is understandable that Julie chooses to stay with him and defend him. It’s not that this production seeks to belittle or approve the wife-beating element; but it contextualises it. All of the lead male characters behave badly to the women they love or say they love – but the point is that the women do love them, lust after them and will put up with a great deal. Is a single slap a worse fate than a lifetime of no consultation and endless drudgery? Julie Jordan, identified as a “queer one” (meaning odd, non-conforming), says No. But is she wrong?

All of this detail plays out in the rich performances: the haunted uncertainty that flashes through Rogers’ eyes; the indifference Montague constantly shows Taylor’s Carrie, despite her expressed, albeit sometimes comical, discomfort; the ever watchful squint of Kent’s eyes as he surveys the possibilities and takes his chances.

The women are equally good. Sutton’s Julie is enigmatic in every way and this is all for the better. Her reactions are not predictable, but when she chooses a course of action she sticks to it. And makes the most of it. Her deep need for Billy, the joy their sexual communion brings her, gives her a spark and a joy which is irresistible. Nothing puts her off what she wants – she is a woman who does as she wants with whom she wants. It is her faith in Billy which provides the tragic underbelly of the piece. Sutton sings effortlessly and with real insight and charm.

Taylor’s wonderful, perky and put-upon Carrie is marvellous. She sparkles in every scene and has an energy that embraces every corner of the auditorium. She matches or makes better all those with whom she interacts. Her comic timing is exquisite. She makes the most of the opportunities provided by the sure work of Kent and Montague and sings with a clarity of diction and a vocal warmth and expression that bubbles with joy.

As Nettie, Julie’s mother figure cousin, Amanda Minihan is more raunchy, more knowing, more carnal than any Nellie I have seen, and her zest and enthusiastic embracing of these characteristics makes the character far less cloying than is often the case. Her wicked and gleeful humiliation of Mr Snow while he bathes is delightful – demonstrating that she sees what is really going on with the Snows, just as she does with Julie and Billy. I would have preferred a slightly fuller vocal sound in June Is Busting Out All Over, but was surprised and delighted by her intensely felt, incredibly sincere rendering of You’ll Never Walk Alone, as unique as it was moving.

Paul Hutton exuded pomposity and arrogant morality as Bascombe, brought a lovely old-fashioned hubris to Dr Seldon and excelled as The Starkeeper, investing him with a nonchalant and colourful detachment which added rather than detracted from the celestial mystery of the man and the place he guards. Valerie Cutkin’s austere, broken (heart and spirit) but haughty Mrs Mullin was inspired; clearly a once beautiful and ambitious woman, now a desperate, drunken shell anxious for kindness and affection.

The ensemble is truly first rate. Impressive vocally and dramatically. Their rich and well sung harmonies are overwhelmingly good; the final a capella reprise of Never Walk Alone is particularly fine and moving. Of special note is the impressive fire-breathing from Charlotte Gale, Joseph Connor’s balletic grace and Anton Fosh’s constant and magnetic energy.

Proud’s choreography is incessantly inventive and neatly solves the “problem” of the ballet which is the key to Act Two, making it more engaging and poignant than I have ever seen it. But the dancing throughout is excellent, the steps clever and unusual, very physical and constantly commanding attention and rewarding the paying of it. The muscular routines for the men breathe fresh life into set pieces.

There is nothing here not to love and admire. It is in turns laugh-out loud funny, charming and graceful, vicious and unsparing, tender and heart-breaking. It’s fuelled with freshness, fury and finesse – and more expertly and precisely presents the highs, lows and everydayness of these folk whose lives are forever changed by the lights and shadows of the Carousel than any production or recorded version I have seen.

There are those who think Carousel the greatest musical written in the Twentieth Century. Fredericks’s production, in the hands and voices of this cracker cast, powerfully argues the case why that might be so.

I hope it transfers. I would see it again and again if I could. It’s an amazing achievement on a tiny budget; with proper support it could run for ages. It’s better than many West End productions of musicals which do.

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