During the past year, memories of the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park kept coming back to me a la Proust dipping his biscuit into coffee. So to go back last night and experience it again was incredible. It is the most perfect venue to see a show, with the trees encircling the space as if putting a protective arm around it. The sky, trees, grass and stage merge into something magical and ethereal that has to be experienced to really appreciate. If you haven’t been then I urge you to go it is one of London’s most uplifting experiences.
Carousel the musical by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein ll (book and lyrics) was declared the musical of the century by Time magazine. They created some of the standout musicals of the twentieth century: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. They are a class act and Carousel is a masterpiece. Does this production do it justice?
Yes, they do. They create a Carousel for our time. The masterstroke is to set the musical in a fishing community in the northeast of England. Hull springs to mind. By doing so we have a close-knit fishing community and the funfair, which features the Carousel, embedded in a believable place at once historically and contemporarily resonant. This is enacted in the first scene as a brass band walks onto the stage. Immediately images of working-class communities and their rich-musical heritage are evoked. All those gritty northern films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and The Full Monty flashed before my mind.
The interplay between the music, the set and the action is handled with great subtlety and nuance. The musical wants to create a conflicted feeling within us. On the one hand the joy and innocence of the carousel on the other the traps that lay in wait. The ‘Prologue – Carousel Walt’ captures this ambiguity wonderfully. We are drawn in like children to the jingle of the ice cream van but then hear deeper strains that strike a note of anxiety. The actual Carousel itself symbolises this. From one perspective a merry go round at a funfair can also be a never-ending circular journey from which it is impossible to exit.
The set (Tom Scutt) brilliantly realises these contrasting themes that Carousel explores. The circular revolving stage turns, even if only by millimetres, throughout the show underlining the inherent circularity of the experience. The industrial crane holding a globe-shaped bollard represents both the fishing village and the idea of being looked over. By God presumably? Like the film It’s a Wonderful Life being observed, being judged is central to the action and meaning of Carousel. Indeed the show’s most famous number ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ (yes the one Liverpool fans sing before every game at Anfield) is so in two senses. Firstly you will always have your community with you and secondly, God is always looking down on you.
I said that Carousel is conflicted. That the musical pushes and pulls between opposites, giving us the contradictory feelings of leaning in and pulling back at one and the same time. The hold that Carousel exerts on audiences and the reason for its continuing resonance is in large part due to this double bind. Take the central protagonist Billy Bigelow (Declan Bennett, terrific) the barker on the Carousel. He is good looking, happy go lucky and has a winning way with women but he’s also a drunk, a bully and hits women. When Julie Jordan (Carly Bawden, fabulous) tells him he’s going to be a father he reveals an awareness of his responsibilities, the beautiful number ‘Soliloquy’, which is both touching and unexpected. Billy Bigelow is simultaneously a perpetrator and a victim that is his tragedy. And that’s what Carousel allows us not just to see as it were in a documentary way but to feel through music, singing and choreography. This is the special magic of the musical as an art form: it’s x-factor if you like. We experience the emotions simultaneously in sounds, senses and shapes. The polar opposite of Billy is Enoch Snow (John Pfumojena, terrific) a good man whom we admire but as the fishermen and their wives make clear he’s a goody-two-shoes he’s no fun he’s too uptight and no good in bed. Clearly, his name is meant to suggest his purity and smugness. Enoch’s limitations are mocked in a scene of comic playfulness in ‘When the Children are Asleep’ as he is pursued around the stage by his frisky wife Carrie (Christina Modestou, superb) as he makes desperate attempts to fend off her advances.
The fishing community is shown warts and all. Yes, there is solidarity and mutual support but there is also a toxic downside especially amongst the men. Billy’s mate Jigger (Craig Armstrong, wonderful) may only be teasing when he warns Carrie not to trust men alone but the menace and the implications are obvious. And he ultimately leads Billy astray with his plans to get rich quick. The peer pressure between men is shown to be both dangerous and all but impossible to avoid.
Carousel is a complex tragedy. But it doesn’t feel like a tragedy because there are so many other elements of the musical pulling the audience in contradictory directions. Take for example the show’s stand out upbeat dance and song number ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’. Led by the community’s matriarch Nettie (Joanna Riding, who embodies the Carousel circularity idea in that she played Julie Jordan in the 1992 National Theatre production) this is pure life-affirming, unabashed feel good, foot-stomping singalong heaven. I would go just to experience this one routine. And Love duets don’t get any better than ‘If I Loved You’ as Julie and Billy work their way towards that kiss. And of course ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is the community finale to end all finales. The dance routines are mesmerising. None more so than the hypnotic and disturbing choreography that envelops Louise Bigelow (Natasha May-Thomas, wonderful) as she tries to comes to terms with desire and restraint as a young woman and yet seems to be following in her mother’s footsteps; the traps and circularity repeating themselves in the next generation. This is all conveyed without a word being spoken. It is a tremendous demonstration of the power of dance to convey thoughts feelings and emotions. Hats off to the show’s choreographer Drew McOnie for this and many other superb routines. Tom Deering has put together a wonderful musical reinterpretation of the original Carousel orchestrations having hit upon the analogy with ‘Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band’. This works really well in the way it evokes a seaside town or fishing village with a brass band playing.
Carousel is bustin’ out all over. A real treat.
Review by John O’Brien
Based on Ferenc Molnar’s Play “Liliom” as adapted by Benjamin F. Glazer | Original Choreography by Agnes de Mille.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is presented through special arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd. On behalf of R&H Theatricals.
The cast includes Carly Bawden (Julie Jordan), Declan Bennett (Billy Bigelow), John Pfumojena (Enoch Snow), Joanna Riding (Nettie Fowler) and Natasha May-Thomas (Louise Bigelow), Brendan Charleson (Mr Bascombe), Jo Eaton-Kent (Mrs Mullin), Sam Mackay (Jigger Craigin), Ediz Mahmut (Young Enoch) and Christina Modestou (Carrie Pipperidge). Ensemble members include Chanelle Jasmine Anthony, Craig Armstrong, William Atkinson, Shay Barclay, Sarah Benbelaid, Chrissy Brooke, Jack Butterworth. Madeline Charlemagne, Freya Field, Sebastian Goffin, Amie Hibbert, Tim Hodges, Lukas Hunt,Tessa Kadler Emily Langham, Lindsay McAllister, Matthew McKenna, Jack Mitchell, Charlotte Riby, Lisa Ritchie, Christopher Tendai and Daisy West.
Children include: Raphael Baron Cohen, Olivia Bart-Plange, Desmond Cole, Siahra Edmonson, Skye Hall, Matilda Hamilton, Jonah Herron, Isa Jones, Elliot Langley-Aybar, Maia, Jasmine Nyenya, Kelly Orbase, Jude O’Sullivan-Whiting, Nooh Rauf and Albie Salter.
Carousel is created by David Allen (associate set designer), Joanna Bowman (associate director), Lucy Casson (casting director), Tom Deering (music supervisor, arrangements & orchestrations), Mark Dickman (associate musical director), Molly Einchcomb (costume designer), Annie May Fletcher* (sound associate), Barbara Houseman (season associate director/voice and text director), Nick Lidster (sound designer), Ingrid Mackinnon (intimacy support), Simisola Lucia Majekodunmi* (lighting associate), Aideen Malone (lighting designer), Matthew Malone (Assistant Musical Director), Drew McOnie (choreographer), Ebony Molina (associate choreographer), Verity Naughton (children’s casting director), James Orange (casting director), Susanna Peretz (wigs, hair & makeup designer), Tom Scutt (set designer & co-costume designer), Timothy Sheader (director), Jacob Sparrow (casting director), Kate Waters (fight director).
Monday 9th August, 7.45pm (Gates Open at 6pm)
Open Air Theatre, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London, NW1 4NU
Running time: approx. 2 hours 35 minutes (including a 25 minute interval)