Rodgers and Hammerstein Unplugged: Carousel @ Arcola Theatre E8

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Vickie Lee Taylor as Carrie with the cast. Photo QNQ Creative

Reviewers often struggle to find adjectives to describe yet another fringe musical we’re obliged to see on your behalf. For Carousel at the Arcola, we have only three: good, good, good.

Good #1 because producers Morphic Graffiti are making a name for taking ‘classic’ material and re-working it for smaller scale acoustic productions. You don’t get more classic than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s vaulting Carousel – it was the opera Dick Rodgers wanted to write but Hammerstein didn’t so the songs soar high into the soprano range and the plot’s all grandiose emotional drama which kills off the tragic hero at the start of the second act. Updating it to the 1930s has loosened the laced bodices and breathed fresh life-giving air into what’s often a stuffy show despite being set on the salt-scented coast of Maine, and the organic nature of the production means that the songs do emerge naturally from the dialogue with fantastically clear and clean delivery from both performers and the outstanding band.

Good #2 because the casting cements the position of Gemma Sutton as a leading actress: playing the complex Julie Jordan is a tough challenge which she meets head-on vocally and emotionally as the character travels 15 years from callow mill girl to worldly single mother. The cast has no weaknesses, though – Vicky Lee Taylor finds all the comedy in Carrie Pipperidge’s pert character and sings divinely as does Joel Montague as her kindly fisherman husband Mr Snow. The relentlessly fascinating Valerie Cutko plays the gaunt but loose-hipped ‘common woman’ and carousel owner Mrs Mullin, and reads so much into the part that it emerges as far more than a cameo, not least because she looks alarmingly like Cher in ‘Tea With Mussolini’. It can only be because he’s Australian and since coming to the UK has worked largely on regional tours that Tim Rogers, as Billy Bigelow, is a new face to us, but we’re glad to have met it: his interpretation of the handsome but flawed (assuming you accept wife-beating as ‘flawed’) fairground barker is pitch-perfect, and his voice is amazing – his delivery with Sutton of ‘If I Loved You’ is wholly believable, delicate and faultlessly sung, and a thrilling tribute to what may well be the best-written duet in musical theatre.

Good #3 because director Luke Fredericks has hired time-served-on-Billy-Elliott Lee Proud to lay the ghost of the traditional Agnes de Mille choreography which often haunts productions of Carousel. His has all the energy and direction-shifting urgency of In The Heights and marries street-dance modernity with the narrative requirements of the production numbers into which all the cast throw themselves with tremendous conviction, and a dazzling array of circus skills.

You’ll have gathered by now that we liked it. A lot. It’s still a silly plot that R&H culled from an old Hungarian play for want of original ideas, and however well-delivered, Carousel needs ruthless cutting so the show runs less than 2 hours 50. But it’s definitely, definitely a hit. And when did you last see a harp in a fringe theatre band?

Book now, while you still can.

Carousel continues at the Arcola Theatre until 19 July. Monday-Saturday evenings at 7.30, Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets mostly £21 with some concessions, and now reserved seating. Available online from the theatre box office

We saw Carousel on tickets provided by Mark Senior PR.

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