Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.” With those words of encouragement, in a song familiar to us all, there comes to an end this revival of what Time Magazine has deemed the best musical of the 20th century. Opening on Broadway just before the end of World War II, and going down a bomb in the West End five years later, Carousel has been successfully revived several times since, and the current production can also be declared a success. In the confined space of what is a studio theatre, housed in what used to be a paint factory, one might have doubted whether the Arcola could pull off staging a famous musical previously playing at major theatres, and indeed made into a Hollywood movie. In fact, there was not even a stage upon which the actors could tread the boards. But that did not stop the audience, filling the seats on three sides of the warehouse-like auditorium, from being treated to a dazzling spectacle of acrobatic dancing and harmonious singing in the ensemble pieces, which for me were the best part of the show. Excellent choreography, imaginative props, and costumes that were spot on for the period – moved forward in this production to the 1930s and `40s – all contributed to overcoming joyously any limitations of space.
Some of the songs will be familiar to readers who have never seen Carousel – such as If I loved you, When the children are asleepand June is bustin’ out all over. The story line may be familiar too, about an innocent young woman who falls in love with a most unsuitable man and then falls pregnant. The man, a fairground barker, realizes at this point that he must take responsibility for his unborn child, but his means of providing for her is to rob the town’s wealthiest man. The robbery is botched, and to avoid capture the robber kills himself. There is an affecting scene where his wife comes to the dying man’s side, and the play might have ended at that point, on a sad note. Instead, it goes on to convey a message of hope and redemption.
This involves Billy Bigelow, the barker, entering the Next World. But instead of a permanent entrance to the Afterlife, he is given a chance to go back to Earth and do something good for his daughter, who has since been born. Indeed, he is there for her graduation from High School, 15 years later in terrestrial time but just a moment in heavenly time. A modern audience may find this too sugary to swallow, but the notion of being given another chance thanks to divine intervention was very much in the air when Carousel was being written in 1945. In Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, released in the same year, an angel comes down to Earth and dissuades James Stewart from committing suicide. In Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death, David Niven should have died when he baled out of his aircraft, but gets a chance to resume his life on Earth thanks to the power of love.
A war-weary world was ready for this message of hope and redemption, and perhaps in this modern age we are not so cynical as to reject it out of hand. But this part of the play could have been considerably shortened. In particular, there is a lengthy ballet sequence which does not seem to add anything, although it has been included since the first production of Carousel in 1945. With June busting out all over at the moment, the running time on these hot evenings is just a bit long. That quibble aside, however, the Arcola has really put on a splendid show, with an excellent cast. Well worth a trip to Dalston Kingsland or Dalston Junction on the Overground!