In a mini-season of nostalgic musicals looking back to mid-twentieth century song and dance styles, Carousel probably least deserves its cosy reputation. While the racial politics and untrammelled heroism of South Pacific is troubling, its love story plots and messages of acceptance have a contemporary resonance, at least in Chichester Festival Theatre’s carefully pitched production. Over at the Barbican, Anything Goes is a frothy, tap-dancing delight and while there may be cartoonish gangsters and farcical shenanigans aplenty, Cole Porter’s tunes are pure escapism. Even the return of Singing in the Rain to Sadler’s Wells will find little to offend in arguably the greatest dance musical of all time which itself is wistfully nostalgic about the origins of movie-making.
But not so Carousel, a new version of which opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this week. It may be part of the Technicolor musical canon but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s redemption story needs to look a little different in 2021 as themes of domestic violence, strict gender division and crime are the focus of a rare story of working class industrialisation, disillusion and the ultimate emptiness of masculine expectations.
No summer is truly complete without a musical at the Open Air Theatre, and a stunning Evita in 2019 directed by Jamie Lloyd and the returning Jesus Christ Superstar that so movingly reopened West End performance last August were choreographic magic in spite of social distancing requirements imposed on the creative choices of the latter. Carousel is a harder show to sell on the grand scale given its tighter focus on a small, early twentieth-century fishing community. And while the dance choices are impressive, spectacle for its own sake gives way to storytelling as dance is used as a narrative device and the simpler staging offers plenty for the audience to mine in what is an intriguing story of male control.
Set nominally in America, Timothy Sheader all but relocates the drama to what feels like a midlands industrial town in the 1910s. The cast retain their UK accents but still refer to clam bakes and trips to New York that situate the play somewhere between the two. And while on film, the big studio movie went for a sanitised rural affair not dissimilar to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sheader’s production owes more to D.H. Lawrence and Patrick Hamilton that it does to the Hollywood golden age. This is a world in which men do the manual work, often hard labour of some kind, drink beer with their friends and expect to be obeyed, while the women do chores, have the children and accept their lot in life.
In Sheader’s production, the relationships between them are frequently tinged with sadness as the early promise of romance is merely romanticism, and marriage rapidly becomes an unshakable burden to both husband and wife. While protagonists Julie and Billy are hardly swept away in a dreamlike fantasy, their hasty marriage declines within two months and a different feeling seems to lie between them. Even the starry-eyed Carrie who spends most of Act One dreaming of marrying her beloved Enoch, is soon oppressed by the tribulations of marriage of which she bears the brunt in Act Two.
And all of this is thematically focused around different forms of control displayed and imposed by several of the male characters. Enoch may be polite and well-bred but here he is also shown to be manipulative, forcing his own expectations of behaviour onto Carrie, ones that she must comply with in return for marriage. He forces her to subdue her sunny nature and friendliness to appear right and proper in Enoch’s eyes, an unreasonable standard he sets for her. Later, in Act Two, we discover the hoped-for union has done nothing but oppress her and, having complied with his restrictive vision of wifely duty, she is held in little esteem, bearing his many children and forced to trail along behind him. It may be hidden beneath layers of supposed decency but Enoch’s coercive nature is demanding and damaging, setting patterns of behaviour ready to be inherited by the next generation.
But Billy is understandably Carousel’s biggest problem, a man haunted throughout the play by what he claims is a single incident of abuse against his wife, for which she forgives him. What follows is quite interesting and while Sheader’s production stands firm on it being inexcusable, there is an attempt to psychologically understand how someone like Billy is created. What this version of the musical cannot do is offer him any redemption for it and the show’s original ending is curtailed to close-off that possibility.
So this is where Sheader looks to Lawrence and Hamilton in considering the construct of early-twentieth-century working class masculinity, based largely on the ability to provide for a family and the opportunities to demonstrate physical manliness through acts of brute strength. Billy’s difficult relationship with friend Jigger brings out the worst in him, immersing him in a very particular experience of unforgiving competitive dominance in which status and acceptance depend on compliance with the social norms that men created for one another. That much of this happens in places of recreation nods to Hamilton’s interest in male leisure.
Billy however takes on the complex structures of Lawrencian masculinity in which these notions of innate brutism conflict with the creative instinct and a more thoughtful, even soulful recognition of alternative ways to be a man. While Billy can never lay claim to be as intricate a character study as, say, Paul Morel or even his father Walter, there is nonetheless a duality in Billy that this production draws out, recognising the shutting down of opportunity that affects his estimation of himself and others. This is exacerbated by his friendship with whaler Jigger who draws his own power from his gruff leadership of other men and, as we shall see in the forthoming TV series The North Water, this world without women curdles male ego so it exists only to compete and dominate.
That Billy becomes trapped in these externally imposed conceptions of manliness is clear and his need to exert physicality on the spaces around him, something he is unable to perform without paid work. This confines him to such an extent that the boiling frustrations and the limitations imposed on his unspecified creativity forge the conditions in which his anger is channeled into a physical act of aggression first against his wife, later in the intention to commit a criminal act and finally, with nowhere left to turn, against himself.
But none of this in Sheader’s production allows Billy to escape the censure he deserves. Whether, as he claims, his act of domestic violence was a single occurrence is left to the audience to determine, but it continues to hold him to account and heap a rightful sense of opprobrium on him from neighbours, his celestial all-female judges and later from the next generation, meaning it is almost the only thing for which he is remembered. That he reacts with frustration every time it is raised and with a detemination to clear his name is reflective of the shame and guilt that follows him – but it is not enough this time to give him the ending that Rodgers and Hammerstein originally offered.
It does create a rather sudden conclusion to this Open Air Theatre production in the slightly truncated narrative that arguably makes Billy’s Act Two journey rather redundant, yet as an exploration of character it becomes painfully clear that Billy’s impression of himself is quite out of kilter with his true nature and he is far from the man he thinks he is. When history repeats itself during his encounter with Louise towards the end of the show, it is a thunderclap moment for the protagonist and one which the Director decides must be a watershed for the audience as well. Billy is, then, quite correctly denied the redemption towards which the show is actually shaped, but in excising material from the story an alternative conclusion for Billy is left unresolved.
Julie is a more mysterious character, given a few moments to explore her love for Billy and some tinge of regret but far less psychological insight into their attraction and why she is determined to stand by him regardless. Instead, the local community fill the other half of the show, using some of the bigger set pieces including This Was a Real Nice Clambake and Carousel’s most famous number You’ll Never Walk Alone to set the scene, a tight-knit but divided town who finds moments of peace and celebration amidst its starkly gender-segregated activity.
Drew McOnie’s subtle choreography may not have a big showcase group number to dance for the sake of dance itself, but his choices are stunning in their ability to tell stories through different kinds of movement. McOnie reflects Molly Einchomb and Tom Scutt’s costume design for the townspeople using broad, country dance shapes as he fills the stage with bustles of activity that has a crowded coordination. Often, these form into segregated numbers that doesn’t noticeably draw a distinction between the male and female experience, even if Rodgers and Hammerstein do, giving similar structures across the Ensemble sections.
Some of the standout moments include the all-male Blow High, Blow Low with a scooping movement that captures the experience of the industrial workforce, and the finale reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone in which the cast form a circle and, one-by-one, the women turn to face outwards throughout the song in case you had any lingering doubt about the underlying strength of purpose this interpretation gives its female characters. McOnie’s greatest moment is a beautiful ballet sequence that summarises Louise’s story, staged among set designer Scutt’s twisted carousel poles that briefly fill the dance space, as she battles the same limitations as her parents, fending off the attentions of other young men while trying to find her own identity, all told entirely and beautifully through movement.
After a powerful performance as a role-sharing Jesus last year, Declan Bennett returns to the Open Air Theatre as the complex and troubled Billy. It’s not easy to play a character without hope and Bennett gives Billy plenty of layers that make his journey through the story interesting but never forgiveable. What Bennett does so well is to understand the separation between Billy’s impression of himself and his right to behave as he chooses, and the unconscious nature that for so long remains a mystery to him so that recognition when it comes is shocking. Bennett brings every bit of power to his vocals with particularly moving renditions of Soliloquy and If I Loved You that are highly romantic but note the life he could have had if he’d been a better man.
Carly Bawden equals that vocal quality, even with a rather underdeveloped female lead, bringing real emphasis to the melancholy What’s the Use of Wond’rin and the self-deceiving duet If I Loved You. There is a quiet endurance and certainty in Julie which we largely observe in her silent ability to get on with life, whatever the suffering it causes her – a Lawrencian heroine, full of fragile strength. Craig Armstrong gave a notable performance as the fathomless Jigger (as understudy) whose presence changes the nature of the show, while Joanna Riding is the heart of the community as Nettie Fowler who leads the mournful uplift of Carousel’s best-known tune.
Sheader stages Carousel with relative simplicity and with a decent pace, helped by Scutt’s rotating stage that moves almost imperceptibly throughout, referencing the fairground attraction of the title as the characters find themselves unable to stop the revolve. A steep wood-slatted surround gives the show height and variation, implying a town surrounded by hills that also creates space for the female Ensemble as the deities presiding over Billy’s last chance for absolution.
While the backdrop of the Open Air Theatre adds its usual touch, Carousel may not be quite as nostalgic as you remember. The exploration of context, social expectation and the confines of gender add a greater understanding to character choices without detracting from problematic and indefensible behaviour. Taking a hard line on a troublesome musical is smart work and Sheader has given considerable thought to reconfiguring Carousel for twenty-first century audiences.