THEATRE REVIEW: Carousel, Arcola Theatre

Arcola Theatre

7 July 2014

runs until 19 July 2014

Carousel (1)On a rainy day in July, at least June was bustin’ out all over at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston (I wonder how many critics have made that joke now? Apologies…). In their third production, following Jekyll and Hyde and The Revenge Of Sherlock Holmes, Morphic Graffiti offer their “imaginative interpretation” of the timeless American musical Carousel. The show really marks Rodgers & Hammerstein at the top of their game and is famously Rodgers’ own favourite of his works, with its rich, unforgettable score, cast of vibrant characters and, of course, the tear-jerking anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

It’s ambitious project bearing in mind the relatively small cast and compact space, but Morphic Graffiti pull it off, bolstered largely by a fantastic lead cast. Gemma Sutton gives an understated yet affecting performance as Julie Jordan, her gorgeous vocals soaring through the space and her soulful face portraying heaps of torn emotion in the smallest look – something you simply wouldn’t get in the wide expanse of a West End theatre. Elsewhere, Vicky Lee-Taylor is brilliant in the comic role of Carrie, pitching every note and line perfectly, and is wonderfully complemented Joel Montague as her beau Enoch Snow; the pair’s comical yet idyllic relationship and their dreams for the future joltingly contrast the troubles of Julie and Billy. The star of the show, however, has to be Tim Rogers as Billy Bigelow. With a big heart, a big temper and certainly a big voice, he inhabits the role of the doomed carousel barker with boldness and spirit, and his rendition of ‘Soliloquy’ is a blazing performance that finishes off Act I in style – and heralds the tragedy we know is to come.

The intimacy of the space and the altered time setting mean this production really brings out the humanity in Carousel. The unspoken yet ever-present backdrop of the Great Depression and, subsequently, World War II lends poignancy both to Billy’s struggles and the mantra that “When you walk through a storm / Hold your head up high”. The closeness of cast to audience pulls you into the story more quickly and deeply than a large-scale production ever could, and the way in which the fairground is brilliantly constructed and melts away again within the overture (in a set innovatively designed by Stewart Charlesworth) seems to lend an almost mystical element to the setting, against which this small yet powerful human story is told. Billy’s lyrics have never seemed more appropriate: “There’s a hell of a lotta stars in the sky, / And the sky’s so big the sea looks small, / And two little people, you and I / We don’t count at all.”

For all it’s got going for it, for some reason Carousel didn’t quite blow me away to the extent I wanted, most likely due to a few scenes that seemed to drag a little. While the tricky ballet sequence of Act II, which can feel like it’s going on forever, was beautifully played by Susie Porter, Michael Carolan and Anton Fosh, there are earlier moments that come across as rather stilted. Valerie Cutko appeared hesitant in her portrayal of Mrs Mullin, as if holding back from her full potential, while Richard Kent gave a rather up-and-down performance as Jigger – at times hitting the mark while at others rather awkward.

Yet I’ll admit the finale did have me fighting back the tears, and overall this production captures both the joy and the tragedy of this old favourite; at the same time it avoids being sickly sweet, making this 70-year-old show feel fresh, lively and full of real emotion.

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