With Music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics and a book by Oscar Hammerstein II, this 1945 musical was adapted from Ferenc Molnár‘s 1909 play Liliom. The story follows the romance of Billy Bigelow a barker on a carousel and Julie Jordan a mill worker. When they meet, they lose their jobs and get married quickly. Things then go wrong as Billy can no longer work on the Carousel and doesn’t want to take up any offers of work as he feels these are beneath him. He begins to domestically abuse Julie. He decides his answer to his money problems is to rob a rich man. This plan goes wrong and rather than spend his days in jail he kills himself, leaving Julie pregnant and alone.
Carousel is a contradiction of a musical, it contains songs ranked amongst the best beautiful ever written for the stage (If I loved you) whilst the main theme of the story is domestic abuse. The beautiful fun inviting theme of a Carousel ride changes to reveal frantic, threatening, sinister undertones of the Carousel waltz giving the impression of a fairground ride gone wrong; and sets the scene of what is to come. For me a Carousel symbolises the journey of a victim of domestic abuse where life is a constant cycle of abuse, and it is so difficult to stop the ride.
As a survivor of domestic abuse, I have boycotted watching the film version of this musical. The lines by Julie Bigelow, when she compares physical violence to receiving a kiss, was for me simply ridiculous and an insult to the many victims and survivors of domestic abuse. Who knows what Oscar Hammerstein II was thinking when he wrote those lyrics in 1945? I am sure critics and reviewers have many an opinion based on years of research. For me, those lyrics are completely inappropriate for 2021 and I am pleased that they have been removed from Timothy Sheader’s production of Carousel currently running at the Regent Park open air theatre.
Whilst the original production is set in the early 1900s in Maine, USA; this production is set in modern day in a mill/seaside town in the North of England and the cast use their own dialects rather than an accent associated with a northern town. Tom Deering’s orchestration combines the use of a brass band, (the production begins with a brass band walking onto the stage) with other instruments such as electric guitars and an accordion to deliberately create a sound that was “less lush” than the original score. His re orchestration combines perfectly with the reimagining of this production, making it feel that we were in a northern UK town.
Tom Scutt’s stage design, including a revolving stage and rimmed wooden slopes at either side, is the perfect platform for the execution of the magnificent choreography. Drew McOnie’s choreography is expressive, modern, witty, threatening, and moving and is delivered with emotion and professionalism by the very talented cast, including Natasha May Thomas making her impressive theatre debut as Louise.
Christina Modestou (Carrie Pipperidge) and John Pfumojena (Enoch Snow) have great chemistry with each other. Both have incredible voices and deliver the well know songs with power and emotion. Carly Bawden’s (Julie Jordan) tender rendition of If I loved you, was just perfection. There is good chemistry between Bawden and Declan Bennett (Billy Bigelow). Bennett creates a Bigelow that whilst as an audience member you understand the circumstances around his frustration, you just cannot warm to.
Joanna Riding (Nettie Fowler) has wonderful stage presence and draws the audience into her arms as she delivers the iconic number from the show You’ll never walk alone. Unlike the film, there is no star keeper who grants Billy a day on earth to make things right with his daughter. In this production Billy is judged by a supernatural group of women, and when he does get back to earth, he abuses his daughter, which caused the audience to gasp in horror. So, there is no redemption for Billy Bigelow in this production, which has caused issues with some professional critics.
Domestic abuse is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable and I applaud the creatives for not glossing over this fact and making this production of Carousel relevant in 2021; whilst maintain the beauty and familiarity of the musical numbers. The highlight of this production for me was the finale. The company, apart from Bigelow, stand in a circle on the revolving stage holding hands and facing inwards. As the tune of the well-known anthem, You will never walk alone filled the theatre space sung with perfection by this talented cast, each woman turned to face the audience whilst continuing to hold hands with other cast members. This sends out a powerful message of hope and unity to all victims of domestic abuse ensuring them that they are not walking alone and reduced me to tears.
Carousel at Regents Park Open Air Theatre is on until 25th September 2021.
We say: “Domestic abuse is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable and I applaud the creatives for not glossing over this fact and making this production of Carousel relevant in 2021”