June was bustin' out with pollen the night Carousel hit town. Hot and muggy, it would be hard to imagine worse performing conditions for a small company in a spit-'n'-sawdust venue to stage one of Broadway's most iconic musicals, yet Morphic Graffiti's talented 12-strong troupe nailed it.
The last time London saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's most downbeat musical was two years ago when Opera North brought their soon-to-be-revived version to the Barbican. That was a stolid affair thanks to a charisma-free leading couple, although it had plenty of polish. At the Arcola it's the other way round: the stage is tiny, the settings are grungy and some aspects of Luke Fredericks's production – like the silly moustache that stays glued to Paul Hutton's upper lip throughout his changes of character – a bit careless, yet you'd go a long way to find a show this full of wit and pizzazz.
Fredericks has updated Carousel by fifty years to a Depression-era setting that adds real power to the story. The desperation felt by small-town folk in the 1930s gives anti-hero Billy Bigelow's self-destructive behaviour an unusually clear motivation. Fairground barker Billy (Tim Rogers, singing and acting heroically through what seemed like a severe bout of hay fever) marries the impoverished and impressionable Julie Jordan, only to risk everything on an ill-advised hold-up masterminded by his friend Jigger, an epicene spiv nicely channelled by Richard Kent as a Steve Buscemi tribute act.
The decision to play Julie as someone desperately low in confidence was a brave one, yet Gemma Sutton is magnetic in her stillness. When she says "last Monday he hit me" as a quiet aside it feels like a kick to the solar plexus – not least because it's the last thing you expect to hear from a sweet young newlywed in what up to now has been a carefree musical. Sutton and Rogers are a plausibly complex pair of lovers throughout, their undulating moods as unpredictable as their relationship, so that even during the sentimental finale we're able to believe in the couple's tangled life and after-life.
This Carousel is a pint-sized powerhouse of a show thanks to some zippy direction and effervescent choreography by Lee Proud. Andrew Corcoran's five-piece band works wonders with Mark Cumberland's deftly reduced orchestration – "You'll Never Walk Alone" practically gains a halo when accompanied by a solo harp – while Stewart Charlesworth keeps things moving with some fluid low-tech designs.
In a small space it's the little details that make a difference, and vignettes like Enoch Snow's shower scene (what fun Joel Montague has as the fish-smelling husband to Vicki Lee Taylor's show-stealing Carrie) make the intimacy doubly welcome. Rough and ready it may be – not all the voices are perfect and the New England accents are a lucky dip – but the momentum is irresistible. Step onto this Carousel if you can. It's a great ride.