SODS at the Palace Westcliff
It's fifty years since I first encountered Carousel. Seen dozens since, good, bad, and indifferent. But I never thought I'd enjoy it so much, and be as moved by the classic combination of story, words and music as I was at the opening of SODS' wonderful production.
A winning blend of staging, casting and tradition makes the production the triumph it is. We are welcomed with a sky cloth, the title sky-written across it. Like all the backdrops, it is a subtly done digital image. As the familiar overture kicks in, fairground signs fold out and the punters flock in to pay their pennies for a turn on Mullin's merry-go-round, CGI again, with one “real” horse for Billy and Julie to ride.
Ian Gilbert brings captivating rough-diamond charm to the troubled barker; terrific stage presence and a confident way with the songs - My Boy Bill superbly handled. A stunning Julie from Maddy Robinson, combining schoolgirl innocence - “little kid face” - with the sort of mature musical theatre voice I thought was a thing of the past. She also skilfully brings out the deeper drama – the death of Billy particularly touching.
Impressively strong casting in the many rewarding roles this show offers: my favourite was Jonny Buxton's Enoch Snow, dreaming of sardines and offspring, loveable despite his boater and his irritating laugh. But best supporting Tonys, surely, to Heather Cooper's bubbly Carrie - a perfect foil to Julie - Les Cannon's evil wharf-rat Jigger, Ann Barber's magnificent Mrs Mullin, Laura Gilbert's strong Heavenly Friend and Annette McGibbon's caring Aunt Nettie.
The younger generation makes an impact, too, with Declan Wright's lithe Carnival Boy and a lovely Louise from Charlotte Cox, very much Billy's girl with her feisty way with Enoch Jnr [Harry Neal].
Suzanne Walters, with the choreographer Vicky Wyatt, makes the show fresh and engaging, whilst respecting the elements that make this a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein – the Clam Bake at the top of Act Two, for instance, is refreshingly gimmick-free. Lots of delightful detail – the Spa girls superbly choreographed, the eavesdropping with the brooms which later form the wedding arch. The chorus boys have their share of fancy dancing, too, notably in the macho matelot sequence.
The music is in the capable hands of Elizabeth Dunlop; the multiplex-strength sound system took some getting used to, though.
This super show kicks off SODS' 125th anniversary season, which continues in November with another timeless classic, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd.