Once again, Carousel has returned to London, but this time in the open air of Regent’s Park. Despite the unforgiving Blighty summer, Timothy Sheader’s post-lockdown interpretation is by no means damp.
Yet another of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s punchy classics, Carousel is embedded in an industrial world suffocated by the patriarchy. Originally set in nineteenth-century Maine, the story revolves around boisterous barker Billy Bigelow and his fleeting romance with millworker Julie Jordan. Their relationship begins and ends in a whirlwind of passion, emotional manipulation, and physical violence; it’s uncomfortable and raw, potentially more so than ever in the wake of recent statistics citing alarming rises in domestic abuse during the pandemic.
To address this where others have neglected to, Sheader repositions the show in coastal Britain, shifting the focus from the redemption of the abuser to the reclamation of the abused. Tom Deering’s reorchestration strips the well-loved original score of its strings in favour of a bold brass band and synthetic sounds. It’s a brave move, but one that has been well-crafted to emulate the tone of Sheader’s vision.
The corresponding arrangement of voices is certainly intriguing: the cast keep their original accents, and emotional subtlety is favoured over soaring belts and quaking vibratos. Declan Bennett seems to strain on some of Billy Bigelow’s bigger notes, which diffuses his masculine clout. However, perhaps this is part of the point: the cast represent a working community bound by class and assertions of power; how much realism is a perfectly pitched RP vibrato going to create? I am personally quite bored of hearing the same faultless voices which merely echo the original soundtrack.
Indisputable is the rich casting of emerging talent: Carly Bawden shines as Julie Jordan; Christina Modestou’s Carrie Pipperidge is charming, energetic and undeniably loveable. Thanks to the British weather, Modestou’s first proclamation of ‘when I marry Mister Snow’ is (unintentionally) accompanied by a sudden burst of rainfall on press night. Consider my inner romantic suitably satisfied.
Natasha May-Thomas delights in her professional debut, positioning Louise Bigelow as strong-minded and autonomous, more than just a victim of circumstance. Drew McOnie’s muscular choreography must be credited here for successfully reflecting both the inner turmoil of the women and the mechanical bravado of the industrial setting. Combined with Tom Scutt’s simple timber set design, our heads are left spinning from endless pirouettes and the knowledge that this story is devastatingly cyclical.
Sheader’s interrogative intentions are clear, but they could go further. I want more daring endeavours for the musical that is home to such difficult topics, not to mention an anthem of resilience that is now enshrined in British culture. The final threads of fidelity may yet to be cut, but I’d be interested to see somebody try.
Carousel is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 25 September 2021. For more information and tickets see the Open Air Theatre’s website.