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Carmen (Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Notices at the Stephen Joseph Theatre warn of "adult content", meaning, as usual, juvenile. The occasional self-conscious smut of Chris Monks' adaptation of Carmen is one of several drawbacks to an admirably ingenious version staged and performed with energy and invention.

Though the Scarborough staging never pretends to full-scale opera, the re-telling is thought through much more convincingly than Opera North's recent lamentable production. The cigarette factory becomes a shopping mall, with a ready supply of feisty young women, Don Jose is a security man and the officers take to management. Dancairo and Remendado are drug-pushers-cum-disposers of stolen goods, Escamillo an idolised Premiership footballer. Everything makes sense, with pleasing little details such as Jose and Michaela's Welsh accents (both from the same village) and Jose's tag/curfew after a prison sentence which serves the same purpose as the bugle call for return to barracks.

The major problem is musical. Unlike the Gilbert and Sullivan operas which Chris Monks has adapted and staged so successfully, much of the drama in Bizet's work derives its emotional power from the singing and orchestra. Here musical director Richard Atkinson's agile keyboard skills are supplemented only by occasional visits from capable wind players in the cast, and the quality of the singing is mixed. Gareth Kennerley (Johnny Jay aka Jose) suffers most. In the opera house Don Jose can be a pretty dull fellow, but the passion of the singing carries the part. Kennerley fields a nice lyric tenor which, like several others in the cast, strains unpleasantly under pressure. Caroline Keiff resists the temptation to overplay Carmen and is more credible and likeable than most in the part, but her singing can get caught between styles.

Monks cleverly develops characters through the evening, giving Tony Amor (Escamillo) a more central role and keeping the likes of Lillas Pastor (Lily) and Lieutenant Zuniga (Lewis Tenant – get it?) before us throughout the second half. One consequence of this is to remind us of what a comparatively small part Michaela is – a shame, because Jennifer Rhodes (Michele) brings more spirit than usual to the role as well as sharing vocal honours with Neil Moors' splendidly vain Tony. His big number is the most successful musical moment of the evening: a genuinely funny variant ("Tony Amor" for "Toreador") and rousing delivery poised perfectly between operatic tour de force and football chant.

In a production where the young are called on for rather a lot of generic slouching and accents from the drawer marked "common", it's perhaps not surprising that the more mature members make the biggest impression. Phil Corbitt does a great comic turn as the manager/drunk/lecher Lewis Tenant and John Elkington brings real, wittily self-parodied authority to the role of Duncan (Dancairo). 
Jan Bee Brown's designs add much to the production, particularly the apparently lavish costumes, and the between-scenes video inserts (Paul Stear) to cover set changes are a delight. Ultimately, however, the production seems to suffer from uncertainty as to how seriously to take the original.


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