Carousel at the Arcola
Originally performed in 1945, Carousel is seen by many as an essential component of musical theatre history. Voted the best musical of the 20th century by Time Magazine, it tells the story of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, two lovers who struggle with money, pride and Billy’s violent streak under the backdrop of a coastal fishing community and its all important carousel.
Morphic Graffiti, the production company for the current run at the Arcola Theatre, have shifted the setting by forty years or so, landing the piece at the beginning of the great depression. In many ways it’s a natural fit for these emotionally tense characters dealing with joblessness and domestic abuse, but despite the slight change in period, this is still a fairly unimaginative take on the classic Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II play.
A more traditional take allows the intermittently strong performances to shine through. Leads Gemma Sutton and Tim Rogers, cast in the roles of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow respectively, maintained strong performances throughout. Rogers in particular displayed powerful vocal talents with a voice that filled the admittedly small auditorium. Despite the obvious commitment that has been poured into these roles, neither character is particularly likable (a symptom of the script more than the acting).
More often than not, it’s the supporting cast that you end up rooting for. Vicki Lee Taylor offers a great comedic performance, managing to infuse scenes with vast amounts of humour and warmth. Accents are occasionally ropey with a couple of actors being of completely indistinguishable origin, but for the most part the heavenly apparitions, carousel workers and fisherman do a good job of filling in the gaps.
Elements of dance are pivotal to the show with one extended piece just after intermission standing out in particular. The choreography on display is generally sound with some expert performances. The Arcola Theatre isn’t the largest of spaces, but Stewart Charlesworth, set and costume designer, has managed to do a lot with it. Using giant sheets and massive C-shaped structures, a carousel is constructed, and later deconstructed, that allows for real spectacle.
As is always the problem with Carousel, the musical comes awfully close to not only excusing domestic abuse, but condoning it. It’s heavily implied that Billy hits women because he loves them, and he receives very little retribution. In a modern interpretation of the musical, it seems strange that this element of the musical should go unaddressed, but if you’ve got a soft spot for traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein this could be worth the price of entry.
Joe Manners Lewis
Carousel is on at Arcola Theatre until 19th July 2014, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch an interview with the leads from Carousel here: