Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs
Wyndham's Theatre

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Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry, Arthur Darvill Curly McLain and James Patrick Davis as Will Parker Credit: Marc Brenner
James Patrick Davis as Will Parker, Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry and Rebekah Hinds as Gertie Cummins Credit: Marc Brenner
Anoushka Lucas Laurey Williams and Arthur Darvill as Curly McLain Credit: Marc Brenner

Don’t expect any uplifting sequences in Oklahoma directed by Daniel Fish. This is a production that explores a more disturbing side of America.

Gun displays line the walls, songs are often given a minimal country and western tilt and, just so the audience isn’t lulled into any dreamlike state, it feels as if the house lights have been left on.

As Curly (Arthur Darvill) opens the show with the song "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'", the rest of the cast sit around a table uninvolved, unmoved, dampening down any lift this more downbeat version of the song might give.

Curly is also no heroic witty figure. Less than sensitive to Laurie the woman he claims to love, he responds to her news that she is going to the dance with Jud (Patrick Vaill) by paying him a very threatening visit and suggesting, since the farmhand is so unwanted, that he should kill himself.

The scene is set in semi-darkness, lit by the back screen projection of Jud’s face sometimes with a look of despair, speaking and crying. It can feel almost like an echo of the 1960 film Peeping Tom with its ominous sense of threat. When a gun is fired, you can fear the worst.

The screw tightens on Jud at the dance when he bids his entire savings to buy Laurey’s hamper only to be competitively beaten by Curly, who is helped by others in the community buying his stuff. All the same, it emphasises how much he wants Laurey.

Anoushka Lucas is very effective as a troubled Laurey trying to assert herself in a world dominated by men who so easily assume it is they who decide what is done with women. Her first conversation with Curly illustrates this as we see his face and hear him clearly while she is placed with her back to us, her voice lowered, more difficult to hear.

In this production, the dream sequence doesn’t conjure up her fears of murder. Instead, a woman in a sparkling silver dress dances to an intense, disturbing musical sequence that at times feels like the soundtrack to a Hitchcock thriller of the period. As the sounds become more terrifying, men’s boots drop onto the stage. There is no individual man responsible.

A sequence of total darkness later compromises our sympathies for the seemingly excluded and lonely Jud as he talks to a fearful Laurey alone in a room. We hear them kiss, though we can't be sure that it was consensual. His refusal to accept that she doesn’t care for him leads to him becoming a threat and being sacked.

The unsettling psychological pointers and political implications of the musical were always there in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s original, but Fish gives them an occasional stylistic sharpness in which darkness, the claustrophobia of some of the conversations and the suspicion of the outsider remind us that this is a country far from the wide-open, welcoming, folksy simplicity of rich crop fields and easy opportunity sometimes conjured up by the American Dream.

This is another America, one that black communities faced particularly in the South with horrific consequences, one in which women might at times feel they were little more than trade. It is one where, in this version of the musical, the inconvenient murder that takes place in front of the community can be easily swept under the carpet. And that event even allows the community for the first time to euphorically sing "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "Oklahoma".

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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