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Music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on 'Liliom' by Ferenc Molnar
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London until September 25 2021
Reviwed by Jarlath O'Connell
#Carousel #OAT2021

Published on August 11, 2021

Carousel Declan Bennett as Billy Bigelow in Carousel at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

"It's Comin' by Gum" cries Nettie Fowler (Joanna Riding) as she leads a rousing chorus of 'June is Bustin Out All Over' and we realise we're not in a Maine fishing village of 1900 at all but rather in the North of England and isn't it about time? After all, 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is now firmly established as the anthem of Liverpool, sung by millions who probably never heard of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Carousel Carly Bawden and Declan Bennett as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

The decision to set this daring reinvention of the piece up North, with actors using their own accents, requires the relationship between the text and the music to be reshaped and that's been expertly achieved here by orchestrator Tom Deering.

Out go the celestial strings (you need a big orchestra) to be a replaced by a more contemporary sound, comprising a musical palette of guitars, basses, accordion etc. It has a northern 'jingle jangle' '60s folk vibe about it. Keys are lowered to ease the transition from dialogue to song and Carly Bawden as Julie and Declan Bennett as the feckless Billy, being two of the best voices currently in the West End, take it in their stride. With Billy in particular the country-folk take anchors that famous 'Soliloquy' better than the operatic approach might for today's young audience.

The addition of a brass band (can you get anything more Northern?) draws out resonances too of community, which of course is a perfect match for this exploration of small-town life in a fishing village.

Molly Einchcomb's costumes replace the girly gingham of early 20th century with more pastel and unisex garments of a working-class tribe. It's grimmer but timeless all the same and it chimes with Tom Scutt's expressionistic set, a revolve cut out at an angle. This may be more starkly beautiful than romantic, but nevertheless it provides a clever solution in an open-air stage with no flies.

Structurally Carousel is a masterpiece, and the songs just do so much. 'When I Marry Mr Snow' for example delineates character like no other. In Julie's reaction to Carrie's joy at her engagement we glimpse her own ambivalence about rejecting the humdrum in favour of a fatal attraction to the bad boy from the fairground carousel. Here, a Welsh accented Christina Modestou plays Carrie for comedy more than pathos but it works and she's well matched with a golden voiced John Pfumojena as the fussy Mr Snow.

Drew McOnie's wonderfully muscular choreography has movements shaped from physical labour as well as macho swagger, but it also encapsulates unleashed joy when that's called for. On the subject of joy, it is great to see Riding as Nettie, considering that her performance as Julie in the now classic 1992 Nicholas Hytner version (National Theatre and Broadway) made her a star. The rest of the ensemble are strong and on opening night were beset with last minute replacements due to being 'pinged'.

The daring vernacular approach of director Timothy Sheader here does mean we lose the florid romanticism and lush strings of a more lyric opera approach but there are other gains instead and if you want a Carousel that pushes the boundaries this is for you.

Carousel 'Blow High, Blow Low' - the Company of Carousel. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON




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