It is a bold and brave move from the off-West End company Morphic Graffiti to stage such a huge show in such an intimate setting –a move that is incredibly exciting to see unfolding magically before your eyes, as the stories of Julie, Carrie and their fellow workers and lovers are artfully woven into a story of love, loss and redemption.
The musical follows Julie and her best friend Carrie as they struggle to make ends meet in late nineteenth century Maine, and their interwoven but entirely contrasting stories of love and marriage. The human relationships in the narrative, as well as the excitement and feistiness of the young workers, make for a vivacious and colourful show for the cast to work with.
The colour of the show is exactly what shines through in this production of Carousel: from the very opening, the audience are treated to a vibrant melee of sound and excitement from the ensemble cast creating the carnival, with the sights, sounds and buzz of the fairground present from the outset. The incredibly inventive set design from Stewart Charlesworth serves to morph the modest space into a spectrum of settings without feeling awkward or clunky, with the cast interacting with it and moving it flawlessly.
This comfortable energy with which the cast use the stage and set pieces translates into all aspects of the production. The joyous ensemble numbers are explosive, with the vocal harmonies consistently on-point, treating the audience to the beautiful, rich sound that Rodgers and Hammerstein are so famous for. Lee Proud and Anthony Whiteman’s choreography is incredibly designed, which is complemented by the ensemble’s stunning abilities, ranging from the balletic to the modern. The choreographic aspect of the show perhaps suffers a little for being in such an intimate setting – while the dance numbers are designed to fit in the space, and do this incredibly deftly, at points it can be difficult to take in the whole scene and this can make the movements seem crowded.
Aside from the ensemble moments, Carousel hinges on many smaller, more tender moments from the protagonists of the show and this production does not disappoint. Gemma Sutton is wonderfully strong as Julie Jordan, giving an emotionally affecting performance throughout with a subtle vulnerability that can often be difficult to portray in such a big musical, where such deft touches can be in danger of being lost. Julie’s love interest, Billy Bigelow, is given a charming and roguish turn by Tim Rogers. The vocals of both leads are unflappable, with the duet ‘If I Loved You’ being one of the most enjoyable musical moments of the production, while Rogers’s performance of ‘Soliloquy’ – a touching and honest ballad – lets us see an incredibly intimate part of Billy’s character.
The highlight of the show is Vicki Lee Taylor and Joel Montague’s performances as Carrie Pipperidge and her husband Enoch Snow. Taylor is hilarious throughout: her comic timing is razor sharp, yet the honesty and truth in the character never fail to shine through this. Montague’s entrance in ‘Mister Snow (Reprise)’ is sudden and brilliant, his powerful tenor lilt sailing through the space and bringing another dimension to the production. This pair’s relationship is the most believable of the show, as the tenderness of their love and the joy of their relationship warm the audience without fail; their duet ‘When the Children Are Asleep’ is a musical treat.
Under Luke Fredericks’s direction a difficult task has become a fantastic spectacle, with every element of Carousel blending to create a surging river of a production. With this, only their third production, Morphic Graffiti are fast establishing themselves as a mainstay of London musical theatre: they are definitely one to watch.
Carousel is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 19 July 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Arcola Theatre website.