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MUSICAL THEATRE Dark ride on this Carousel

WILL STONE sees a curiously downbeat production of a Broadway musical classic

Carousel
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

 

TO MAKE it resonate with a modern audience, a revival of  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical was always going to be a tall order. So it proves with this production.

Based on the 1909 play Liliom, many people simply don’t care about the explorations of marriage, women having lots of children and masculine pride in Ferenc Molnar’s work anymore.

So when meek and mild millworker Julie Jordan (Carly Bawden) falls for brutish carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Declan Bennett) and their love for each other causes them both to lose their jobs, we’re looking through what seems the lens of ancient history.

The sombre mood of Timothy Sheader’s production is as gloomy as can be, although there’s some light relief in the chipper performance of Julie’s work friend Carrie Pipperidge (Christina Modestou) and her dry-humoured husband Enoch Snow (John Pfumojena).

He has ambitions to have as many fishing boats as children, expressed in the entertaining number When The Children Are Asleep.

And there’s energy in Drew McOnie’s impressive choreography and the catchy June Is Bustin’ Out All Over, which contrasts with Tom Scutt’s bleak black-and-grey set. There’s not a colourful carousel in sight but it lends a suitably film noir ambience to proceedings.

Tragedy is certain when it becomes apparent that Billy beats Julie, who ignores the advice of her kind aunt Nettie Fowler (Joanna Riding) and Carrie to leave him well alone. But hope springs eternal when Julie falls pregnant and the news delights Billy so much he wonders at being a father to a boy or a girl in the number Soliloquy.

Fearing how to provide for his unborn child, Billy takes up the doomed offer from his troublemaking friend Jigger (Craig Armstrong) to mug and kill Julie’s former employer Mr Bascombe (Brendan Charleson) for the mill’s takings.

The botched attempt sees Billy fatally stab himself rather than go to prison, while Jigger escapes. Realising that she will have to raise their child alone, a despairing Julie is comforted by Nettie in the anthemic classic You’ll Never Walk Alone.

But it’s the twist at the musical’s bizarre ending that leaves a lasting impression. Billy in the afterlife is given a second chance by angels to redeem himself by being allowed to return to help his teenage daughter Louise (Natasha May-Thomas), who is seen confused in love and life while performing an impassioned dance in the rain.

In the original, it all ends happily ever after but here Billy only offers some words of comfort before getting frustrated and shockingly slapping her.

The production abruptly ends on a pessimistic discord— a nod to the bitter truth of domestic violence which has soared during the pandemic — that you can’t change someone’s nature at core.

Runs until September 25, box office: openairtheatre.com

 

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