Music by Richard Rogers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the play Liliom by Ferenc Molnar
Chichester Festival Theatre

Production photo

Chichester’s new artistic director, Jonathan Church, managed to turn around the fortunes of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre during his five years in residence before handing the baton to the very capable Rachael Kavanaugh. It remains to be seen if he can manage to do the same for the Festival Theatre, but he has certainly made an excellent beginning. The first night of new play Entertaining Angels with Penelope Keith was a sell-out.

This time Carousel – a well worn, well tried favourite (but performed only last year by their amateur company): would it bring in the punters for a different production? Judging by last night’s first night, Church gauges his potential audience perfectly – another sell out! If this keeps up for the season, Chichester theatre’s future is well assured.

The large thrust stage here must always be a problem for a designer, and Paul Farnsworth’s incredible set of a very realistic vicarage garden was a hard act to follow. Here Robert Innes Hopkins has boldly almost filled the apace with a large carousel, the horses under drapes, and inquisitive children begin to arrive wanting to take a peep. This is a much more dance orientated Carousel than usual, and, as the fairground begins to wake up and the horses are unwrapped, the dancing begins to the evocative Carousel Waltz, and the ride commences – in reality as the horses and riders are set in motion. My first thought was – how are they going to get this off-stage with no wings and no curtains! Somehow, and I’m still in wonderment, the whole thing folded and disappeared magically through the doors at the back, bringing spontaneous applause for this amazing feat.

Venezuelan born Javier de Frutos (soon to be Artistic Director of the Phoenix Dance Theatre) is the choreographer for this show and it does take a little while to become accustomed to his technique which involves flamenco style wrist movements, a great deal of twisting and bending and frequent lifts, necessitating very supply bodies for the dancers. Not at all similar, but it did remind me of the legendary Bob Fosse whose distinctive style was evident throughout his work

Skipping to what is generally known as the Dream Ballet, this was performed by Carousel Boy Benny Maslov and Clemmie Sveaas as Bigelows’s daughter, Louise, with the dancers around them as if on a carousel. For me this was the main highlight of the show (there were others) – totally mesmerisingly beautiful. I was very sad when it came to an end and the dancers went on their way, leaving poor Louise alone and rejected again.

To touch briefly on the story – mill girl Julie Jordan (a pretty and demure Harriet Shore) falls for handsome, brash waster Billy Bigelow (Norman Bowman), the ‘barker’ on a carousel who is killed in a bungled robbery, and she is left alone to bring up daughter Louise, whose carousel dance is watched by her invisible father, allowed back on earth for a day to try to help his daughter. He bungles this too! His ‘soliloquy’ as he contemplates the responsibility of fathering a daughter is very moving.

This is without doubt the most poignant, emotional Carousel I have ever seen, the inspiringly beautiful You’ll Never Walk Alone causing me (and most of the audience, including the men) to wipe away the tears as, sung by the company, it closed the show. In fact the ensemble work throughout was particularly impressive, the musical numbers being enhanced by Jason Carr’s sympathetic orchestration.

The show is by no means full of tears. June is Bustin’ out all Over and This is a Real Nice Clam Bake are two joyous songs begun by the magnificent voice of Jacqui Dubois before being taken up by the company and she also, with great compassion, begins the closing song as she comforts Louise.

There are also come lovely comic moments from Julie’s friend Carrie, a delightfully pert Lydia Griffiths, and her husband Enoch Snow, played by Robert Irons with just the right amount of entertaining pomposity contrasting nicely with his would-be flighty wife.

A story beautifully told, and expertly directed by Angus Jackson. A better Carousel would be hard to find.

In repertory until 31st August

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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