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Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre
Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

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Jack Mitchell (Ensemble), Declan Bennett as Billy Bigelow and Natasha May-Thomas as Louise Bigelow Credit: Johan Persson
"Blow High, Blow Low" from Carousel Credit: Johan Persson
Carly Bawden as Julie Jordan and Declan Bennett as Billy Bigelow Credit: Johan Persson
Declan Bennett as Billy Bigelow Credit: Johan Persson

It is difficult to imagine many mid-20th-century musicals tuning into the contemporary dilemma as well as Timothy Sheader’s superb production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

He has transported the story to a British working-class community and kept a sensitive eye on the way its central theme of domestic abuse allows us to imagine its horror and its possible cause without accepting it as natural or justified. That means the cosy ending with the central male character whispering into his daughter's ear gets cut, as does the infamous line spoken by a victim “He hit me, mother, he hit me hard, but it didn’t hurt, it felt like a kiss,”

This is the story of Billy Bigelow (Declan Bennett), the charmer working as a carnival barker who seems to almost accidentally fall for Carly Bawden’s Julie who defies the local big-wig’s insistence that she go home rather than be out with Billie at night.

Their romance shifts from cautious affection to marriage then conflict as unemployed Billie, feeling less of a man, physically strikes Julie. It's not as if that behaviour hasn't been signposted. In practically their first conversation, he warns, “don't feel sorry for me or I’ll give you a smack.”

That violence seems always just below the surface with the male characters whose physicality is brilliantly illustrated in Drew McOnie’s choreography with its hard masculine movements and sharply extended arms which, in the second half’s nightmare dance, is absolutely terrifying, particularly for Billy’s daughter Louise, played by the very fine dancer Natasha May-Thomas.

The music is harder than you would expect. The string instruments that normally give an expansive lift are absent. The sound instead feels more in keeping with the harsh subject matter and a traditional British community. Early in the performance, a brass band fills the performance space playing the “Carousel Waltz”.

Men push containers across the stage into which other men empty buckets as women push prams and wash clothes. Gender identity, gender differences are being established in the home and at work. We even see children reproducing what they have witnessed their parents do.

The final scene makes a different, more hopeful point. As the cast of men and women stand facing inwards in a linked circle on the slowly revolving central round wooden stage, the women, one by one, look outwards.

It is the women of this musical who best express our feelings. Christina Modestou as Carrie Pipperidge, Julie’s best friend, often says stuff we know Julie needs to hear and she is not afraid to speak her mind to her husband Enoch Snow (John Pfumojena), a man not shown to be violent but instead trying to be controlling. However, it is perhaps Joanna Riding, in a very strong performance as Julia’s level headed cousin Nettie Fowler, who reminds us more than others of women’s strength and it is she who delivers the haunting hopefulness of "You’ll Never Walk Alone" a capella.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna