Timothy Sheader’s phenomenal revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 musical classic doesn’t so much reinvent ‘Carousel’ as blowtorch away three-quarters of a century of chintz to reveal the greatness underneath. It preserves everything that’s wonderful about the show, while ruthlessly incinerating much that dates and problematises it.
‘Carousel’ is a dark story, a relatively faithful adaptation of the 1909 Hungarian tragedy ‘Liliom’. Both follow a doomed romance between a young woman and a carnival barker, who dies in a bungled robbery and is granted a brief, bitter return to Earth. But memories of the unequivocally tragic play – which was fairly popular in the early twentieth century – have largely been obscured by the musical. For all its grit in relocating the tale to a Maine coastal community, ‘Carousel’ usually comes laden with the jolly baggage of golden age musicals: lush orchestration, mannered singing, an excess of old worlde good cheer and a (relatively) forgiving attitude towards domestic violence.
Sheader simply does away with all that. Aesthetically, his ‘Carousel’ is stripped down to the wooden loop and revolve of Tom Scutt’s set, adorned only by a hulking industrial crane and a huge buoy that later hoisted on high to serve as illumination. Molly Einchcomb’s costumes are a stark jumble of khaki and denim that speak to the characters’ status as working-class people from some point in the industrial era, but nothing more specific than that.
The location too, is wilfully ambiguous, not least because the British cast speak with their own accents, which scrapes away another layer of artifice, lending an authentic weight. In particular, having leading man Declan Bennett perform the role of troubled, violent carnival barker Billy Bigelow in his own flat Coventry vowels is far more affecting and raw than if he were to meticulously mimic a New England accent.
Most daringly of all, Sheader has had musical supervisor Tom Deering totally re-orchestrate the once sumptuous score: the strings are out, replaced with ringing peals of brass and glistening shards of treated electric guitar. Again it makes for a harder, harsher ‘Carousel’ in which the message doesn’t feel in contrast to the jollity of the medium.
Combined with a superlative cast, taut, wiry choreography from Drew McOnie and some judicious tweaks and cuts and you have a tougher ‘Carousel’, one that feels truer to its own tragedy. And yes, it still has those surging songs: the jaunty likes of ‘June is Bustin’ All Over’ and ‘That Was A Real Nice Clambake' feel no less valid here than they usually do. And ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, sung beautifully by the veteran musical theatre actress Joanna Riding, remains a thing of pure majesty.
Bennett’s excellent Bigelow is matched with Carly Bawden’s terrific Julie Jordan, here presented as a well-behaved but fundamentally steely young woman who is clear-eyed as she turns her back on her old life in order to be with the raffish Billy. But Billy’s frustration at being unable to find new work after insouciantly quitting his carnival job soon curdles into self-loathing and abusive behaviour. ‘Carousel’s biggest problem is that it tends to be relatively forgiving of this, but that's not the case here – the most infamous line, ‘he hit me mother, but it didn’t hurt… it felt like a kiss’, is gone, as is any suggestion that Billy has been let off the hook. The supernatural twist towards the end tends to both lighten the mood and allow Billy to find a sort of cosmic redemption, but here that’s absolutely not the case – it simply heightens the tragedy, the full ‘Liliom’.
‘Carousel’ in any form remains a towering work, and like many golden age musicals you tend to go into it accepting it’ll be a tad dated, in a way you wouldn’t if it were a play. You only need to look over to ‘Anything Goes’ at the Barbican to see there’s a clear appetite for old fashioned musicals presented in an old fashioned way. But with Broadway recently throwing up edgy reworkings of ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Oklahoma!’, and indeed the OAT having recently reclaimed ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Evita’, there are the beginnings of a slow revolution out there. Whatever its lasting impact, this is a brave and powerful production, one that drags ‘Carousel’ into the present and finds it still delivers.