The inevitability of yet more cuts to the arts after today’s election result has brought morale to a staggering low. At the same time I’m seeing hope and I’m still seeing some excellent theatre on London’s fringe. Carrie the Musical has, like its heroine, been plagued by insecurities since it debuted in Stratford in 1988. It gained a negative reaction after arriving in the States the year after and similarly during its 2012 Off-Broadway revival, where it closed within a month. I went into this with apprehension but an open mind. My main concern was transforming this darkly tragic story into a spectacle. I thought I’d moved towards a preference for less musically-infused theatre but this has given me a new-found passion. Indeed Carrie has broken free and come into her own.
The victimisation of Carrie (Evelyn Hoskins) by ringleader Chris (Gabriella Williams) is cruel and uncomfortable; particularly a torturous early shower scene in which the bully and her cronies evoke epic viciousness. Williams is a bitch of a villain; transcending the perhaps ‘expected’ behaviour of a high school bully to depraved heights. But alas kids are shits – I’m sure many of you can agree with that. There’s an unsettling and unstoppable intent in Williams’s expressions that give her character real horror, or at least until she gets her comeuppance, at which point you are truly reminded that the real tragedy is the fact that these are all just stupid, immature teenagers.
Hoskins’s Carrie is exceptional. Her voice tingles with emotion and physically, she fits the bill. Just like Sissy Spacek in her Oscar-nominated film performance, she is beautiful in an unconventional way; unfortunately by society’s standards making her more believable as an outcast and ‘freak’. Her relationship with mother, Margaret (Kim Criswell) is a fascinating and isolated one. Carrie isn’t so much brainwashed as emphasised as being infantile. The moment she realises her power is the moment she breaks the maternal bond and becomes a woman. Blood is spilled and the floor gets (very) sticky. Mother isn’t portrayed as a soulless monster, rather a sour example of a boy’s inability to be a mature and responsible adult. Criswell gives the character an assured conviction that keeping her daughter away from the world is the only way to continue life. She is almost allowed to be sympathetic before her strict Christian beliefs run dominant.
The space could have potentially caused problems for what I predicted to be a complicated show. Designer Tim McQuillen-Wright hasn’t given us too much. Each scene is set on a chequered floor with a single wall not dissimilar to an abandoned, crumbling building. As a whole it is used well but aided especially by Tim Oliver’s magnificent lighting. Post-prom, a humiliated yet quietly accepting Carrie steps towards and into a jet of white light. The irony here is beautiful.
Michael Gore’s music is strong. Hoskins stands out in all of the group numbers but predictably shines the brightest alone in ‘Carrie’ and ‘Unsuspecting Hearts’ with Jodie Jacobs’s Miss Gardner, a most heartbreaking song when one is aware of what lies ahead. There are some exceptions. ‘The World According to Chris’ doesn’t particularly highlight the ensemble, especially the generally weak boys and often it is hard to understand the lyrics. Williams, though, like Hoskins shines during some solo moments.
Sarah McNicholas’s Sue has, like Jacobs, an emotional relationship with Carrie. Her difficult break away from her high school ‘life’ is played wonderfully and the final moments are just raw.
I could accuse Gary Lloyd’s musical of being overproduced but I shan’t because good theatre deserves praise and this is far beyond that. Go see this wonderful revival, and then go see some more fringe theatre. Go.
Carrie is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 30 May. For tickets and more information, see the Southwark Playhouse website.