Walking into the atmospheric surroundings of an open-air theatre is always a joy, never more so than with the anticipation of seeing one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular musicals. Carousel is undoubtedly a classic and was even voted the best musical of the 20th Century by TIME magazine. Written in 1945, the story is a simple one: young millworker Julie Jordan meets bad-boy and serial womaniser carousel barker Billy Bigelow and is immediately smitten. So much so that she risks her livelihood just as he’s also given the sack. Living on the generosity of family and friends, their situation goes from bad to worse when Julie tells Billy she’s pregnant and he becomes desperate to provide for his family and is willing to risk, and lose, all.
Carly Bawden is a charmingly innocent Julie, with a sweet soprano that is perfect for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music. Declan Bennett makes a ruggedly physical and unlikeable Billy. John Pfumojena as Enoch Snow and Christina Modestou as Carrie Pipperidge give fine performances with a lovely comedic touch as they mirror the toxic relationship of the Bigelows.
Carousel is packed with songs that have passed into the mainstream musical lexicon, including “If I Loved You”, “June Is Busting Out All Over” and the showstopper of all showstoppers, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Joanna Riding gives the standout performance of this production with a heartwarming rendition of this classic anthem, her voice soaring over the audience. Her Nettie Fowler is the warm “matriarch” of the community, organising, supporting and nurturing, even through the poverty-striken drudgery their day-to-day lives. The orchestrations by Tom Deering are marvellous, with a subtle modernisation that doesn’t clash with the 1940s/50s setting.
Tom Scutt’s simple set of a round stage with vertiginously raked platforms surrounding it beautifully evokes the dock of a Maine fishing village. The orchestra is tucked away from the weather under the back of the stage, a musical Hobbit hole from which wonderful sounds emerge, the gorgeous brass section adding a delicious warm tone to many of the songs.
The dynamic and energetic ensemble take on Drew McOnie’s imaginative, though occasionally repetitive, choreography with flair. Towards the end of the show there’s a weird scene involving a member of the cast repeatedly rolling down the raked set, almost falling into the audience, and then climbing back up again. Maybe this was intended to be symbolic of something like human resilience and fortitude, never giving up, but it jarred and looked rather bizarre. It’s the only misstep in Timothy Sheader’s deft direction though, and the whole production – lighting, sound, costumes, music, performance – makes for a thrilling theatrical experience.
Carousel doesn’t attempt to answer the question of why beautiful young women fall for bad guys and then put up with abuse in the name of “love”. Nor does the narrative redeem the character of Billy who, given a final chance to make things right and repent, fails even then. There is hope in the younger generation of Bigelows and Snows and so the audience is left with a sense of the uplifting joy of life and love, as represented in the enduring classic, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
Carousel continues at Regent’s Park until the 25th September. Full details and tickets can be found at https://openairtheatre.com/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 9th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★