Monday, July 21, 2014

Heaven and Earth in East London

Last week we had a theatrical adventure and went east to Dalston to visit the Arcola Theatre for the first time.  What production could lure me to this basement theatre of exposed brick walls and stone floor?  Maybe a metaphysical rumination of man's place in time and space?  A drama about how a woman can stay with a husband who is handy with his fists?  Or just a good old fashioned Broadway show?  Well blimey if it wasn't all three!

I can't say CAROUSEL is one of my favourite musicals but the thought of this big show from the Golden Age of the Broadway musical being staged in a space that at best seats 180 people was one I couldn't pass up.  I have only seen the show once before on stage which was in 1994 when the National Theatre production moved to the Shaftesbury Theatre.  Since then I have seen both the 1956 film musical starring Gordon Macrae and Shirley Jones and Frank Borzage's stylish 1930 film LILIOM which was the original play by Ferenc Molnar that CAROUSEL is based on.

I had been informed that it was a radical re-interpretation but to be honest it was only a re-interpretation in that it was in the afore-mentioned space - there was no radical look at the material, no overhauls of the text - the only twist put on it was that the action was brought forward to the 1930s but to be honest I didn't notice apart from the opening moments where Julie is seen listening to the radio news about Mussolini!

Other than that the story was as usual: Julie Jordan goes to a visiting carnival with her friend Carrie and when Julie sees the Carousel barker Billy Bigelow it's love at first sight.  The jealous Carny proprietor Mrs Mullins sacks Billy when it looks like he returns Julie's affections and Julie too is sacked from her millworking job for staying out late with Billy.

They marry and move in with Julie's cousin Nettie.  Billy cannot find work and starts to hang around with the dodgy Jigger Craigin and a now-pregnant Julie confesses to Carrie that Billy has hit her.  Jigger persuades Billy to rob the mill-owner on his way to deposit his money and they sneak off from the local clambake to do it but the hold-up goes wrong and surrounded by the police, Billy stabs himself.  Julie arrives just before he dies and when he does she can finally tell him she loves him.

Fate however is not done with Billy.  He is ushered into a celestial waiting-room and informed by the Starkeeper that as he didn't do enough good when alive to get beyond the pearly gates but he has the chance to return to earth to help his now-teenage daughter Louise who is feeling confused and lost.  Can Billy make amends?

Richard Rodgers' wide-ranging score delights with such undeniable classics as "Do I Love You" - the culmination of the teasing first scene where lines are sung only to stop, showing the couple's hesitant groping towards revealing their feelings - "Mister Snow", "June Is Bustin' Out All Over", "When The Children Are Asleep", Billy's "Soliloquy" "What's The Use of Wond'rin'" and of course that emotional tripwire "You'll Never Walk Alone".

But there is little can be done with Oscar Hammerstein II's book from 1945 which is so of it's time and now looks creaky and simply past it's sell-by date.  It doesn't have to be: characters are drawn well, the character of Billy in particular is three-dimensional in his complexity and you can see how at the end of wartime the thought of the dead being only a heartbeat away was successful but the jaw-droppingly passive character of Julie is unworkable - especially when seen in contrast with the well-drawn supporting character of her friend Carrie.

There is also the squirming problem with the final scene when Julie's confused and lonely daughter asks her mother "Can someone really hit you so hard that you don't feel it at all, that it's almost like a kiss?".  You can deny Political Correctness all you want but those lines just stand out with huge klieg lights illuminating them, no matter how straight-faced the actress playing Louise says them.

As much as I find the show hard to warm to, there is no denying the brio that the company brought to the production.  I liked Richard Kent's slippery Jigger, Joel Montague's lumpy Mr Snow although there was really no reason for him to sing half of "When The Children Are Asleep" in his underpants and Amanda Minihan's redoubtable, full-throated Netty.  There was an odd performance by Valerie Cutko as the lusty widow Mrs Mullins - has she ever been seen in the same room as Justin Bond?  

Gemma Sutton played Julie as well as that book can allow her and she had a lovely voice but it's hard to make the character live when all you have to do is stand with brimming eyes and a noble chin.  Tim Rogers certainly had the swaggering bravado to make an impression as Billy but when he opened his mouth to sing the oddest noise came out, it was almost like he shouted the songs rather than singing them.  The lack of a belt voice was most noticeable in the "Soliloquy" which sang him rather than the other way around.

By far the most eye-catching performance was from Vicki Lee Taylor as the sparky Carrie Pipperidge.  I remember no less an authority than Barbara Cook saying of the two female leads - which she played in two 1950s revivals - that she would rather play Carrie, much more varied and with a definite arch to her character.

Lee Fredericks had certainly thought through his production so it was always busy, always moving forward, although it seemed to stall in the whimsical Starkeeper scenes.  The production was helped by Stewart Charlesworth's inventive designs and Lee Proud certainly didn't let the small playing area cramp his choreographed dances. 

I wonder if I will ever see a production that totally wins me over?

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