Review: Carousel @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

Adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1945 from Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, Carousel tells the story of an ill-fated romance between roguish Billy Bigelow (Alex Williams) and  straight-laced Julie Jordan (Sarah Forrest) in a typical New England town during the inter-war years. So far, so appropriately trite; but as the plot progresses, embracing themes of unemployment, domestic violence and social exclusion, it becomes something else entirely, to modern eyes at least. Unfortunately, Oxford Operatic Society’s production tends to skirt round these deeper, altogether more interesting elements and in doing so, resigns itself to nothing more than light, moderately entertaining banality.

The central romance first blossoms after a whirlwind ride on the eponymous fairground ride, before briskly evolving through the three recognisable stages of love: cautious hesitation, cosy intimacy, and sullen disenchantment. Too briskly, as it turns out, for it to be fully believable. Forrest and Williams seem unable to develop their relationship beyond the second stage and as a result, the vituperations and violence that occur later on seem forced and unnatural, like Prince Charming telling Cinderella he can’t stand the sight of her.

In developing the piece dramatically, the onus is overwhelmingly on Williams. Having sacrificed his job at the fairground for Julie, Billy’s unexpected unemployment leads him on a treacherous path to alcoholism, gambling and crime. Torn between his affection for Julie and his libertine instincts, Billy is undoubtedly the play’s most nuanced character, yet Williams is unable to express more than superficial mental torment. He is Prince Hal with an American accent, caught between depravity and duty, but apparently not all that bothered.

Billy is far from a good man – he hits his wife, he considers abandoning his family, and he plots to assault an upstanding citizen. None of the moral issues that accompany this darker side to his character are addressed, however, and in truth, this is a baffling directorial decision, akin to staging Hamlet without contemplating madness or making a bacon sandwich without HP Sauce.

Attempting to address these themes would render the production immeasurably more engaging. Furthermore, by evidently refraining from doing so, by presenting Billy as a simple, every-day hero, and by wrapping up his misogynistic, wife-beating tendencies in the same bundle, Carousel veers dangerously close to endorsing them (“It’s possible for someone to hit you hard and it not hurt at all” is a particularly uncomfortable line).

Away from Billy and Julie’s awkwardly defined relationship, there are hints of endearing humanity. The more conventional love-affair between bubbly Carrie Pipperidge (Siân Millet) and ambitious Enoch Snow (Guy Grimsley) is well-realised, if a little predictable. There is something of the dastardly about Glen Young’s Jigger Craigin and Natalie Mullins’ Mary Mullin is a quintessential mutton dressed as lamb.

Musically, Carousel is enjoyable, if not particularly evocative. June Is Bustin’ Out All Over brings a smile to the face for its strident vigour, but never a beam. Geraniums in the Winder is sad, but not poignantly so. And You’ll Never Walk Alone is stirring, but nowhere near as skin-crawlingly atmospheric as it could be if a few hundred dyed-in-the-wool Liverpudlians had been plonked on stage. All numbers sang adeptly with gusto and verve, but one’s heartstrings remain regrettably un-tugged.

Similarly, the production’s aesthetics are appropriate without being memorable, although the choreography of the opening scene, in which a rotating carousel is effectively evoked with glowing orbs and dancing youths, is memorable. Overall though, Oxford Operatic Society’s Carousel never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.



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