REVIEW: Carrie, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Kim Criswell and Evelyn Hoskins in carrie The Musical at the Southwark Playhouse
Kim Criswell and Evelyn Hoskins in Carrie The Musical. Photo: Calire Bilyard

Southwark Playhouse
9 May 2015
5 Stars

Forget absolutely everything you have read or heard about the musical, Carrie. Forget that it was premiered by the RSC in 1988 but flopped spectacularly despite starring Barbara Cook and direction by Terry Hands. Forget that the Broadway premiere, also in 1988, starring Betty Buckley, flopped after 21 performances and lost more than seven million dollars. Forget that you have seen the Brian De Palma film or read Stephen King’s novel. And, especially, forget all the people who said about the musical’s first outing “What were they thinking!” and that there is a famous 1992 book entitled “Not Since Carrie:Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.”

Forget it all.

Buy a ticket to the revival of Carrie now playing at the Southwark Playhouse and approach it with an open mind. For this strange, almost operatic, piece (Score by Michael Gore, Lyrics by Dean Pitchford and Book by Lawrence D. Cohen) is much more classical tragedy than Broadway flop, more small scale epic than misconceived travesty, and more simply entertaining than many a modern musical. Directed here by Gary Lloyd, who also choreographs, Carrie proves to be everything a musical needs to be: well sung, absorbing, performed with total commitment by a mostly very talented cast, and full of heart.

The Large space at Southwark Playhouse proves to be perfect for Carrie. There is a claustrophobic feel to the space, as well as a sense of a school gymnasium, which works well. The intimacy between performers and audience is intense, and allows the underlying themes – peer pressure, ostracisation, love, fanaticism, devotion, hatred of difference – to percolate and pulsate; some character or action will resonate, on some level, with every audience member.

Lloyd’s direction is straight forward and ensures that the pace never drops, that the narrative holds interest. The most controversial aspect of the production involves its updating to a time when selfies and iPhones are part of the high school firmament. This jars frequently, and one has the sense that the piece would work much more easily if it remained set firmly in its time.

What is most admirable about Lloyd’s vision here is that no attempt is made to recreate the film, the book or even the way this musical has been produced before. He does not seek to make a musical horror story – rather, he makes a dramatic musical which has horrific elements. In the end, of course, the true horror in this story is not the mass destruction wreaked by telekinetic powers wielded by a heroine forced to breaking point and beyond. No. It is the story of how one person, pushed beyond endurance by forces outside her control, but which press down on her relentlessly, finally breaks, and murders innocents and protagonists alike, until finally, in a sea of blood, her own life ends.

If that sounds oddly familiar, it is. It is essentially the same basic narrative of Sweeney Todd. There are differences, obviously, but the central thrust is surprisingly is surprisingly similar. No one doubts that Sweeney Todd is appropriate as a piece of musical theatre. Nor should they doubt Carrie is an equally appropriate subject.

Cohen’s book is slightly clunky in parts, but not in a fatal way. It does convey, very well, the sense of high school bullying and childishness rampant at Carrie’s school, as well as the tense, dour, and bleak home life she endures, full of religious zeal and compromised love.

The story is told simply. Carrie is a shy awkward girl, despised by the “in” girls at school. At home, she is coddled, dominated, and tied to the Bible by her mother, a stern, slightly unhinged woman who has substituted the Bible for everything in her life and for whom the term zealot is an understatement. When Carrie gets her first period in the post-gym class showers, she is distraught and seeks help from her classmates. But, led by rich bitchette Chris, the other girls laugh at Carrie and torment her with sanitary products. Carrie is so upset that she inadvertently activates her telekinesis power and shatters a light. A kind teacher, Miss Gardner, intervenes and Carrie is sent home. There is no comfort there, though, and her mother punishes her severely, reminding her of the biblical curse of blood.

One of Carrie’s classmates, Sue, rethinks the torment of Carrie and questions Chris about her harshness. This is exacerbated by Miss Gardner insisting that all the girls who taunted Carrie apologise to her. Chris refuses and is banned from attending the Prom. Chris, beyond fury, plans an humiliating experience for Carrie. Sue asks her perfect, sports king, poetry writing, nice boy-next-door boyfriend, Tommy, to take Sue to the Prom, not because she doesn’t want to go with him (she does) but because she wants to do something to show Carrie that people can be nice. Tommy is reluctant but agrees, because he is, essentially, a decent person.

Carrie and her mother fight about Carrie going to the Prom. But Carrie has been testing the limits of her telekinetic powers and demonstrated them for and at her mother and her mother is fearful of Carrie, fearing she is a witch. Carrie goes to the Prom with Tommy and has a good time against her expectations. She is happy, possibly for the first time in her life.

Having rigged the election, Chris ensures Carrie and Tommy are crowned Prom Queen and King. On the Dias, enjoying everything, Carrie and Tommy are suddenly doused in pig blood – Chris’ vengeful plan to humiliate comes to fruition. After the initial shock, the school kids, apart from Tommy and Sue, laugh at Carrie, enjoying her discomfort almost as a muscle memory. But Carrie has snapped and she lets her powers lash out, killing first Tommy and then everyone but Sue, who escapes the conflagration. Destroying the school itself, Carrie trudges home, covered in blood and distraught. But at home her mother awaits, knife in hand, prepared to murder her witch child.

The biggest problem with the show is the one-dimensional feel to both the chief villains – spoilt Chris and her boyfriend, bad guy Billy Nolan. It’s not just the screechy one note performances (Gabriella Williams and Dex Lee) which contribute to this, but Cohen’s dialogue and use of the characters. It might, for instance, be better to have a duet between them which illustrates their unsuredness about their plan or explained clearly why they think their revenge is justifiable, perhaps even give a moment of pause to the pair, rather than show them set up the pig’s blood trap in front of us.

Sound also plays a role. A lot of what both Williams and Lee sing is lost because the balance between instruments and voice is not correct. This does not help their performances. Sound designer Dan Sampson still has much work to do, especially in the larger ensemble numbers. Important lyrics are lost in a torrent of sound.

Those matters aside, this is an excellent, involving production.

Kim Criswell is magnificent as Carrie’s mother. Her voice is in remarkable form and she sings the difficult score with bravura ease. Criswell is brash and belty when she needs to be (And Eve Was Weak, Evening Prayers) and then, profoundly restrained, laced with heartfelt pain, a masterclass in meaning, vocal support and flawless tone for her extraordinary Act Two number, When There’s No-One. It’s a savage, uncompromising performance of bitterness and white-hot anger; completely convincing. Criswell triumphs; her truthful delivery matched with her formidable voice results in a performance than will never be forgotten by those who see it.

Taking their cue from Criswell, many of the company treats the material in similar fashion: truthfully, with total commitment and as a way of bringing their skills into harness. Jodie Jacobs is excellent as Miss Gardiner and her work in the reprise of Unsuspecting Hearts first-rate. Greg-Miller Burns is really terrific as Tommy; he manages the balance between good looking jock sport Supremo and gentle, humane poet convincingly and there will be few who are not moved by his beautiful rendition of Dreamer In Disguise or the delightful love song, You Shine.

Sarah McNicholas makes a fine fist of Sue, in some ways the most difficult part. Because of the way the story is told, her fate is clear from the outset, as are her losses. But McNicholas does her best not to give anything away and her scenes with Tommy and then, later, with Carrie strike as sincere and true. She has a great voice too. Although lumbered with a deal of awkward dialogue, she manages to make most of it work. The final moments, before the conflagration begins, for instance, could be much cleaner than they are – more attention needs to be given to the through-line for her character by Cohen.

Some of the ensemble do terrific character work, but all of them sing the harmonies with verve, dance energetically and truly (Lloyd knows how to create a mood, a sense of time and place with crisp dance steps and body moves) and give their all to the proceedings. Especially good was Patrick Sullivan’s bi-curious George, Bobbie Little’s Frieda and Olly Dobson’s Joey Jeremiah-esque “Stokes”. On the downside, there were very limp and unnecessarily drab performances from David Habbin (Mr Stephens), Molly McGuire (Norma) and Emily McGougan (Helen). Lloyd needs to pay those performers as much attention as the other cast – in such a pared back version, every character counts.

What the ensemble achieved very well was the sense of ordinariness and companionship, sometimes easy, sometimes not, that is crucial to accepting them as a gaggle of graduating seniors in a place which could be anywhere. Carrie only works if the juxtaposition between ordinary life and omnipotent power is clear. And here is definitely is clear.

Of course, the show has no hope without a tremendous Carrie and in Evelyn Hoskins, Lloyd has a true star. Hoskins is perfect. She is down-trodden, riddled with rejection and incomprehension about how she is treated at school, and frightened by both her mother’s religious fascism and her growing understanding of her latent powers of telekinesis. With a bent head and hollow, almost vacant, eyes, Hoskins embodies the tentative aspect of every part of Carrie’s life. But like every good worm, she can turn – and when she does, it is with the total conviction of an animal that has been mistreated for life, baring its fangs, and going for blood.

Hoskins’ scenes with Snell and Miller-Burns allow her to show her range, and she takes full advantage of this. The simple, gentle moments with Miller-Burns are terrifically judged by both and they show Carrie truly happy, if only for a moment. Equally, the scenes between Criswell and Hoskins plainly chart the progress from terrorised child to rebellious young adult – the moment where Carrie levitates her mother and then suspends her in mid-air, while she goes about her supper, is as shockin as they come.

With a powerful, accurate and interesting voice, Hoskins sings the score in an unapologetic way, a diva in the making. Unsuspecting Hearts is thrilling as is the climactic I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance (both with Criswell) and her scream of pain, Why Not Me, is perfectly judged. Her duets in the second Act show her range, with the gentle Dreamer in Disguise moment with Tommy particularly soft and sweet.

Musical director Mark Crossland has done an excellent job with the cast’s ability to master and sell the score. Musicality is at a premium. The seven piece band play exceptionally well and the tempi are vigorous and appropriate. Once the sound balance issues are sorted, this is a musical performance that ought be recorded for posterity.

There is excellent work from the Special Effects (Jeremy Chernick) and Flying Effects (Flying By Foy: Floyd Hughes) departments. The levitation of Criswell is particularly well realised but so are the tricks that accompany the discovery of Carrie’s powers and the destruction of the school. Wisely, impression rather than excess is the chosen style – and it reaps rewards. That said, there is plenty of sticky, read blood!

On any view of this, this is an accomplished and worthwhile staging of a work that has long been condemned by whatever artistic choices were originally made or by the current views of the “theatre intelligentsia” of that time. Carrie is, actually, just as good if not better than a number of recent efforts: it is certainly better than Made in Dagenham, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Love Never Dies, From Here To Eternity or Stephen Ward – or, at least, this production is better than the recent productions of those shows in London.

Partly, that is because the material is strong. Partly, it is because the cast work tirelessly, completely in the moment, always seeking to play truthfully, and to serve the music, the text and the choreography well. Partly it is because the central quartet of Hoskins, Criswell, Miller-Burns and McNicholas has what it takes – in spades. Partly, it is because Lloyd’s vision here is simple: he is telling the story, letting the music speak; he is not trying to make a camp homage.

To experience the joys this Carrie has to offer, you need only one thing: an open mind. This excellent production will do the rest.


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