Review: Carousel, Open Air Theatre

Despite some careful thinking and some glorious singing, the Open Air Theatre’s reimagined Carousel can’t stop this problematic musical from being, well, problematic

“Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain”

There’s a glorious moment early in the second half of the Open Air Theatre’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel when all its constituent concepts and parts coalesce together in perfect harmony. Joanna Riding delivering the haunting strains of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as the sparseness of Tom Scutt’s design reveals its haunting potential, cleverly contextualising Drew McOnie’s lyrical choreography with the bold brass of Tom Deering’s new orchestrations recasting this classic score with real vibrancy.   

Around it though, the rest of this notoriously tricky musical doesn’t quite stick the landing in the same way, despite the work that director Timothy Sheader and his company have put in to try and address its intrinsic issues. A soft relocation to somewhere in’t’north allows the cast to use a range of British accents but it is a certain truth that no British person has ever said the word clambake, particularly as often as it is said in this show. It may seem like a small point but it is an incongruency that rings out every single time someone says it.

And even if the toxicity of the central relationship between the brutish Billy Bigelow and the long-suffering Julie Jordan is front and centre, with no questions about the truth of its domestic violence, there’s no questioning that Billy as a character gets too much time in the spotlight, at the expense of Julie #soliloquiesforall. For all that Declan Bennett is careful not to glamourise Billy, it does mean that he ultimately lacks the seductive qualities that would encourage Carly Bawden (such a seriously beautiful voice) to throw her lot in with him so absolutely.

Despite this, it’s far from a bum ride this Carousel though. Any chance to hear Joanna Riding sing is reason enough to book, the excision of the Starkeeper in favour of a female chorus is done well, Christina Modestou and John Pfumojena offer gorgeous work in their key supporting roles and the company dance work is often spectacular, especially given the unforgiving nature of most British summer nights. But in the same way that the stripped-back starkness of Scutt’s set imposes a little too much, the vision for reassessing this musical is one which only really works intermittently. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Carousel is booking at the Open Air Theatre until 25th September

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