The Royal Festival Hall, handsomely refurbished and with new, improved acoustics, really isn’t any sort of place to put on a show. The big wide stage is resistant to any meaningful scenic embellishment, the performers’ expressions are invisible half-way back in the stalls, and lighting is a non-starter.
Jude Kelly’s rumbustious presentation overcomes these problems by ignoring them. A 60-piece orchestra – the London Philharmonic, alternating each night with the Philharmonia – is sunk in the middle of the arena and the cast mill around the edge, occasionally doing a bit of dancing but mostly just singing their socks off.
Oscar Hammerstein re-wrote the book and lyrics to provide the first all-black version of a white musical on Broadway during the Second World War. By moving Carmen’s tragedy further south to Cuba, and removing any sense of period – why, then, would the factory girls be making parachutes? – Kelly neutralises the story even further. Her prime objective is to create job opportunities for black artists.
So the show, qua show, cannot be compared too favourably with Steven Pimlott’s British premiere at Sheffield in the mid 1980s, or Simon Callow’s terrific Old Vic version in 1991. But, boy, is the singing alright. The South African pop and concert artiste Tsakane Valentine Maswangany is a red hot Carmen in a red dress, pulling on her matching red knickers as she appears to sing the “Habanera” (“Dat’s Love”) and pushing her voice right into the extreme operatic crevices of the role.
She's kept up to the mark all the way by the vocal performances of Brenda Edwards as Pearl, beating out that rhythm on a drum with electrifying intensity, and Sherry Boone as Cindy Lou who literally stops the show with “My Joe” in the second act.
Andrew Clarke is a striking Joe, mixing his high tenor with a falsetto element (though his voice started to disintegrate later on) while his love rival Husky Miller the boxer (as opposed to Escamillo the toreador) is sung by his baritone blood brother, Rodney Clarke.
The rhythm drums are in fact oil drums, strewn around the stage alongside a beaten up old Chevrolet and Michael Vale’s emblematic token design of three adjacent frontages: Husky’s white Chicago mansion, a Cuban colonnade and a slum tenement building.
Kelly’s nerve falters by overloading the final scenes with an onstage boxing ring (“Stand up and fight until you hear the bell” is the slightly enfeebled toreador’s marching song); the “acting” of the climax could do without this distraction. But the large chorus, and the band under the inspirational musical direction of John Rigby, sweeps on to a thrilling musical resolution and that shocking dying fall.