Two young millworkers in freshly industrialized 1870s New England visit the town's carousel after work. One of them - demure Julie Jordan - shares a lingering glance and suggestive touch with the carousel's barker, Billy Bigelow. Julie's friend Carrie Pipperidge presses her for information, but Julie is reticent about the encounter. Eventually satisfied, Carrie confides that she has a beau of her own: local fisherman Enoch Snow. A policeman appears and warns the women that Billy has taken money from other women. Carrie goes off, but Julie stays. She and Billy, now alone, can talk freely, but neither can quite confess the growing attraction they feel for each other.
Despite the incommunicative start, Julie and Billy are married shortly thereafter. When we next see them, Julie is confiding to Carrie that Billy, now unemployed, is unstable and occasionally violent. Carrie has news, too - she and Mr. Snow are officially engaged and looking forward to their idealized notion of married life. As they and the town's other young folk prepare to attend a clambake, spitfire Carrie pokes fun at the local boys, cheered on by the local girls. Julie's cousin Nettie Fowler leads them all in a celebration of spring before they leave for the clambake. Meanwhile, Billy has fallen in with the unsavoury sailor Jigger, who tries to recruit him to help with a robbery. Billy is initially uninterested — but then Julie tells him of her pregnancy. Overwhelmed by the news, and determined to provide for his future child, he decides to be Jigger's accomplice after all.
After the clambake the townsfolk head back to town. Carrie's fiancé walks in on some innocent flirting between Carrie and Jigger, and declares, as Jigger jeers, that he is finished with her. Julie, meanwhile, places her self-doubt aside and resolves to accept and love Billy as he is. Jigger and Billy play at cards, with the stakes being shares of the forecasted robbery spoils. Soon Billy has lost his entire stake in the robbery; the robbery is aborted; and Jigger escapes while Billy is caught. Distraught, Billy kills himself — Julie arrives too late to save him. .Nettie and the townsfolk comfort Julie and we follow Billy to heaven. There, a pair of blunt-spoken angels explain that he must attempt to solve the problems he left behind. They send him back down to earth, fifteen years after his suicide.
His and Julie's daughter, Louise, is now an angry and rebellious teen He manages to give her a small gift, and finally confess his love to Julie. Having thus made amends, he wins entry to Heaven.
Carrie Pipperidge: Lauren Hood
Julie Jordan: Alexandra Silber
Mrs. Mullins: Diana Kent
Billy Bigelow: Jeremiah James
Nettie Fowler: Lesley Garrotte
Enoch Snow: Alan Vicary
Jigger: Graham McDuff
Starkeeper: David Gollings
Director: Lindsay Posner
Choreography: Adam Cooper
Sets: William Dudley
Costumes: Deirdre Clancy (fab name!)
Lighting: Peter Mumford
PA to Lesley Garrotte: Ania (no, I don't know why her PA gets a mention in the "Production Team" list in the programme, nor why she only appears to have one name)
I admit that I have major problems with this show. I don’t mind the first act, although it has its longeurs, and the first half of the second is OK, but after that it all gets very, very silly, as if Oscar Hammerstein suddenly paused from his inky scribbling of the libretto and thought “Shit, I’ve run out of plot and there’s still 30 minutes left of Act 2”). Also, I’m not the world’s greatest fan of La Garrotte (‘Ullo love, I’m from Doncaster!!”), her incessant mugging on stage and her fudged top notes. Still, there was now’t on t’telly and the seats were cheap (two for ‘alf a crown and change left over for a barm cake each on the way ‘ome from t’pit). In fact, from the crush in the auditorium, it seemed that there were quite a lot of other people who had somehow managed to get cheap tickets as well (the technical phrase is “heavily papered, dharling”). I think I was probably the youngest person in the place – there seemed to be a lot of coach parties from Hastings in; Rogers and Hammerstein have got a bit of a reputation of being SYCSTYMT (Something You Can Safely Take Your Mum To).
Mind you, in retrospect we were extremely lucky to actually get into the theatre, there having been a slight contretemps with a security guard outside over the placement of a “no smoking” sign. I was actually outside the theatre, but standing under the canopy of the Savoy Hotel having my pre-show cigarette (the show is a whopping 3 hours long, so I needed to top up my nicotine level before going in) when I was ordered to put it out. I queried where the “no smoking under the canopy” sign was – and it turned out to be inside the theatre. Not having yet been inside, I obviously hadn’t seen it. The security guard took my pointing this out as a challenge to his authority, as those with limited intelligence tend to do. So me and Him Indoors were suddenly subject to a “random bag search” by way of reprisal, and an argy-bargy ensued, which then led to threats of being chucked out. I bet the West End Whingers never have to put up with such treatment. The excitement continued inside when Him Indoors, having asked the woman in the seat next to him to stop talking during the overture, got clobbered round the ear with her programme. Another argy-bargy ensued, and I had visions of being dragged from my seat by usherettes wielding tazers disguised as Cornettos and lobbing small grenades cunningly hidden inside Maltesers. Fasten your seatbelts, its going to be a bumpy night!
Anyway, the orchestra were on top form (from what we heard of the overture above intimate details of Carol-next-door’s hysterectomy) – its extremely rare these days that there’s 19 people in the pit. No expense spared there. Where the production did spare expense was in its constant use of back projections – not a single backcloth to be seen. It seems that, recently, ingeniously designed and clever scenery is on its way out. There’s little left of stage magic – everyone’s copping out and using film techniques instead. Sorry chaps, but if I want to see want moving images projected onto a screen I’ll go to the cinema. This cheapskate illusionism even extended here to the carousel itself. OK, it was a full-sized, elaborate, whirling image – but that’s not what I want (particularly as all the horses were empty!) when I’m at the theatre. This technique was used once again during Act 2 for the ascent to Heaven – this was a supremely naff animated “galaxy” tracking shot, during which I half expected to hear Oliver Postgate narrate the opening sequence from The Clangers. This then turned into a syrupy version of the famous “Stairway to Heaven” sections from A Matter of Life and Death. And right at the end, the graduation ceremony was backed by an animation of the Stars and Stripes waving against a cloudless sky. C’mon fellas – this isn’t stagecraft, this is lazy!
What made this laziness harder to countenance was an example of just how effective traditional sets can be if they are lit effectively. The dockyard scene in Act 2 was fabulously realised, with old tarpaulins draped over a series of huge packing cases. Add lighting worthy of Rembrandt himself and you’ve got True Theatre Magic. This scene, so simply done, was stunningly beautiful; very static but supremely effective and a true example of the Lighting Designer’s craft. Well done, Mr. Mumford.
For all my dislike of the show itself (because of the daft “Heaven” section and the supremely pointless 10 minute ballet – which always makes me think that Rogers thought “Sod it, it worked in Oklahoma, I’ll stick a ballet in here”), I have to say that the choreography was excellent, the entire show was very well paced (there is a long, static scene right at the beginning which can be excruciating to sit through but it was very well done here) and there were some wonderful performances. Alexandra Silber was truly amazing as Julie – restrained, completely believable and expertly pitched throughout. She has a singing voice of such incredible purity and charm that it puts La Garrotte to shame. She also outstrips her in acting technique – but then that’s not difficult. Jeremiah James was completely believable as Billy Bigelow. This is a completely unsympathetic role – Bigelow is a drunk a waster and a wife-beater, yet he somehow managed to get the audience to believe that there was a better person somewhere underneath. Again, excellent vocally – although his costume bears more than a passing resemblance to that worn by Marcel Marceau, which is distracting. Graham McDuff gave a performance of genuine villany as Jigger - a combination of The Childcatcher and Bill Sykes. In fact, he actually gets booed at the curtain call – a sure sign of a perfectly pitched performance of nastiness. .Alan Vicary gave a very rounded performance in the somewhat thankless role of Mr. Snow – I’m not sure whether he wears a wig in the show but, if so, it needs attention; when he pulls of his hat he looks like Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons. Lauren Hood was just slightly too shrill to be perfect as Carrie Pipperidge – her performance is in danger of becoming too broad and needs reining in slightly lest it tip into caricature. And Diana Kent gives a wonderfully warm, restrained performance as Mrs. Mullins.
And La Garrotte? Well, I think I loathe her even more than I loathe Alan Titchmarsh. She’s on for a spit and a whistle in this show, yet seems determined to steal every scene she’s in by mugging, gurning and playing completely to the audience – just like she did in The Sound of Music. She is a most ungenerous performer, relentlessly trying to upstage everyone else on the stage. She goggles and grimaces through June is Bustin’ Out All Over like an over-excited teenager, rather than the matronly, dignified but always ready to let down her hair and kick up her heels, Aunt-Eller-like character that Nettie Fowler should be. And of course, she wouldn’t be Lesley Garrotte if she didn’t milk The Big Number (You’ll Never Walk Alone) for everything its worth. This comes for the first time in the show halfway through Act 2, when Nettie comforts the grieving Julie after Billy’s death. It should be a quiet, dignified hymn which builds to a crescendo with the promise of calm in the middle of a maelstrom of emotions. But no, we could have been on the terraces at Anfield. All it needed was a stripy football scarf and a dodgy meat pie. And her behaviour during the curtain calls was unforgivable – gurning and wiggling her not inconsiderable bosom at the audience and detracting from everyone else on stage. Shame on you, woman. There are finer actresses (with better quality singing voices) on stage, so just get back to Doncaster where you belong. I’ll pay your train fare. This is a classic case of miscasting - transposing a big name draw from one performing genre into one in which they are ill-suited and out of place just in order to sell tickets. Well, I tell you, this show would be that much better without her.
Thankfully we did not get accosted by security guards or attacked by mad women brandishing programmes on the way home.
What the critics said:
Listen to La Garrotte murdering the phrasing in this!