Reviewer's Rating

This production first saw the light of day at Bard College in 2015 and was most recently reworked at the Young Vic last year. I had the pleasure of reviewing it and it was intriguing to see how well it would transfer to the West End. It was a good choice to bring it into an intimate space such as Wyndhams. While the addition of the proscenium arch does reduce the sense of community immersion that was such a positive feature of the Young Vic production, the chance to revisit the work has sharpened up and enhanced and elaborated particular scenes and also allowed for the addition of a larger group of instrumentalists to the band.

Daniel Fish and his collaborators deserve huge credit for stripping away layers of varnish from this venerable musical and finding depths of character and darkness there which only add to its stature. This applies particularly the the handling of the traditional villain – the hired hand, Jud. Patrick Vaill has been with this production from the start and his characterisation of this troubled loner has become richer and more layered on each outing. This production successfully avoids traditional heroic stereotypes by showing that he is as much a victim as an aggressor; and that the warmth of this community is also tied to a need to find outsider scapegoats on whom to pin its pathologies.

This deeply infused ambiguity of perspective bleeds into the other characterisations as well, whereby Arthur Darvill and Anoushka Lucas, playing the two leads, Curly and Laurey, become truly three-dimensional both as actors and singers, and many of their songs acquire a fresh depth of meaning, and additional ironic layers, as they are repeated within different emotional situations across the evening. The same goes for the matriarchal figure of Aunt Eller, played by Liza Sadovy, whose savvy but sometimes harsh control of events is evident throughout and especially in the otherwise uncomfortably sexist auction of the hampers and the final trial scene after Jud’s death.

Let me reassure the reader that it is not all shadows and social commentary. Joyous light relief is provided by the secondary couple in the action – Will and Ado Annie – played with wonderful comic brio and vocal panache by James Patrick Davis and Georgina Onuorah. Their guileless naivety are brilliantly projected with plenty of interaction with the audience and superb timing. Alongside them Stavros Demetraki does an equally fine job as the conniving pedlar, Ali Hakim, full of long-suffering charm; and Greg Hicks, quite outside his usual acting persona, is remarkably plausible as the hard-bitten, gun-toting farmer, Andrew Carnes. Rebekah Hinds generates a truly grating laugh as the centre of characterisation of Gertie Cummings, making much more of this role than usual.

The designs and settings, by Lael Jellinek and Grace Laubacher, are the same as before, but adapted to new circumstances: pale wood finishes are applied to the backdrops and boxes either side of the stage and an impressive arsenal of weaponry attached to them. Festive streamers for the ‘box social’ hang above the stalls, and a succession of props and furniture are moved on and off, still allowing plenty of space for the many dance numbers. I was not entirely convinced by all the uses of close-up camera work (useful to raise the tension in the confrontation between Jud and Curly, but adding little in later iterations). The lighting scheme plays a more than decorative role, with full blackouts in moments of tension and conflict, a wash of eerie green for fantasy sequences, and a super-bright glare for the open community sequences.

I leave consideration of the music until last because it really is the most notable feature of the production and the factor that uniquely elevates its status. Daniel Kluger is working here with a slightly larger band than at the Young Vic, which allows for greater elaboration of material and variety of timbres. The infusion of country and folk elements into the arrangements releases a fuller emotional range and dynamic power in the harmonies, which in turn enables the singers to elaborate and vary their renditions, rather in the same way that Baroque or jazz musicians add extra ornaments and riffs on repeat. Openingup the music framework is particularly advantageous in respect of the ‘dream ballet’ in Act 2, where dancer Marie-Astrid Mence depicts Laurey emotional and mental turmoil as she resolves her future. Just as in ‘Carousel’, Rodgers and Hammerstein always intended these ballets to be a confronting escape from the current impasse of the plot, where music and dance are the only possible way forward. In a fashion that they could never have imagined, this production fulfils that requirement for another and different era.

This is not a perfect show, but it is a ‘must-see’ for any devotee of musicals, their history and updating.