It is 20 years now since Nicholas Hytner's definitive revival of Carousel at the National Theatre, but this wonderful production by Jo Davies for Opera North – seen earlier this year in Leeds and Manchester, and on its way to the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris – does not fare badly in comparison.
It’s very different, in fact, designed by Anthony Ward from the inside out, so that there is no brilliantly conceived or imposed vision of the New England amusement park, or the various coastal settings, or Heaven’s backyard; the settings materialise out of the darkness, with expressive lighting by Bruno Poet, and the show prospers in the resolutely human scale of the performances.
There is nothing melodramatic about the revelations of carnival barker Billy Bigelow’s bad behaviour: Michael Todd Simpson simply sings the role as a feckless drifter, so that Katherine Manley’s delightful Julie Jordan is both plausibly attracted to him and devastated by the tragedy that envelops them.
When the robbery on the island goes wrong, the consequences are a terrible surprise redeemed by an unsentimental celestial coda, where John Woodvine – happily reinstated after illness earlier in the show’s run – is a genial Starman and the ballet, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, is neither too saccharine nor too mawkish.
The singing throughout is excellent, too, Yvonne Howard’s Nettie Flower releasing all the joy and glee of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” as well as the anthemic grandeur of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is triumphantly retrieved from the football terraces as a song of encouragement and deep consolation.
James Holmes conducts Don Walker’s original orchestrations with the right mixture of fervour and discretion, so that the lighter numbers (“Blow High, Blow Low,” “When the Children Are Asleep”) are as riveting as the sterner songs, notably Billy’s great “Soliloquy,” and all are superbly sung; it’s worth saying that the sound balance at the Barbican is perfect, unaffected by the crude amplification that blights so many musical theatre performances these days.
The “second” couple, Carrie Pipperidge and her docile, devoted Enoch Snow, are charmingly done by Sarah Tynan and Joseph Shovelton, and the chorus work is especially notable in the Act Two opener, “A Real Nice Clambake,” and the moving reassertion of the great anthem as Billy is allowed back to earth for one good deed; his glimpse of the future, the world continuing to turn very well without him, is something we must all face sooner or later. A great evening.