Saturday, 19 July 2014

'Carousel' at the Arcola Theatre

I've never seen the Rogers and Hammerstein musical 'Carousel' either on stage or the film so the Arcola Theatre revival was the perfect opportunity to put that right. Like everybody else, I'm very familiar with 'You'll Never Walk Alone' as a song (but not the dramatic context) and I know 'Mr Snow' from hearing Barbara Cook sing it and 'What's the Use of Wonderin'' from Amanda Palmer's first solo record. The rest of the score is a mystery.

'Carousel' is, of course, a classic American musical following the smash hit of 'Oklahoma!' and before 'South Pacific' and it suffers slightly by coming between those two shows. Still, it has a great following (which I don't quite understand) and is revered by musical theatre people.

The Arcola puts on a great tribute to the show, a big production in a rather small space that made me worried the dancers would bounce into me (I was sitting in the front row) when they were being energetic and thrown around.

The story opens with the funfair in a small New England town and Carrie and Julie getting free tickets for an evening out. Julie falls for Billy, the fairground barker, and both lose their jobs but end up marrying. Julie realises she's pregnant around the same time as he hits her and, when he knows he's going to be a dad, agrees to rob the local bigwig. It all goes wrong (obviously) and he dies, only to look down from heaven (or wherever) and realises he can help his lost daughter who has just turned 15. This is where it really lost me, when Billy meets his daughter and slaps her hand but she tells her Mum that he slapped it so hard that it doesn't hurt and is that possible Momma? To which Julie replies, 'yes'. Stupid person. You've lost me entirely at this point. The book needs a re-write... badly. What kind of messages has it been promulgating for the last 60 years or whatever?

I thought the cast were great, the play was (largely) fast paced, the songs vigorous and life-affirming. Billy was played by Tim Rogers with lots of energy compared to Julie who was played by Gemma Sutton as a calm centre of the storm. I didn't believe in their relationship as much as I did that of Carrie (Vicki Lee Taylor) and Mr Snow (Joel Montague). I was quite delighted to be introduced to Enoch Snow after listening to Barbara Cook singing about him for years now. I could've done without seeing him in his rather tight underpants but hey, that adds an element of reality I suppose. Both Vicki and Joel had good voices and solid presences and that added to the play.

I liked the recurring circus theme that kept emerging throughout following the introductory 'ballet' - I suppose it plays to the little kid in me that yearns to run off and join a circus. Even when we are taken to the gates of heaven it's the circu characters that greet Billy as (rather stupid) angels and allow him to revisit his family. I worried about the two main circus performers hanging upside down from ladders for so long, Katrina Dix and Joseph Connor, who were consistent throughout. Well done people and to Charlotte Gale for her fire breathing as well.

Much as I hate to dismiss the writers of the magnificent 'South Pacific', 'South Pacific' this ain't. My dissatisfaction with the play isn't really about the production or the actors, it's the play I find fault with. Wife-beating and the bad boy doing what he wants isn't really a story I want to see and I just found it distasteful and its messages worrying. If you've seen any of my previous reviews of plays then it'll be clear that I respond at an emotional level to what I see and if the male lead is a wife-beater then that's all I need to know. Quite frankly, I don't care if it's been a hit all over the world, Julie should slap Billy around the chops and get a divorce.

It's not the production I didn't like, it's the book. And the extended dancing pieces in lieu of songs. Sorry 'Carousel' fans, but it didn't work for me. Possibly it was the bloke behind me that at one point kept banging his foot against the back of my seat that distracted me from the art (until I reached back and vigorously shoved his foot away)? Possibly it was the ridiculous heat and the abstract queue at the under-staffed bar? Possibly it was the interruption by the fire brigade at half time?

I really lost any involvement when we see wife-beater and capitalist-stabber Billy on the borders of heaven complaining about his life. My response was to tell him to shut the fuck up but no, God's (rather stupid) angels decide to give him a second chance and send him back to Earth 15 years after he left it so he can get angry at his daughter and slap her hand. Violence is always his response, it seems. Of course, it could be argued that this is behaviour he's learned from his own father and it's not really his fault, etc etc etc. Well, I don't care, I don't like Billy Bigalow.

My reading of the book probably isn't the same as fans of the musical and that's probably because I'm not a fan. How could I be? I'll honour Rogers and Hammerstein for 'South Pacific' (which confronts the inherent racism of island life) but not for this musical. I probably won't be seeing it again.

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