Carrie (Southwark Playhouse)

The musical version of Stephen King’s horror novel, once a notorious flop, is given vivid new life

'Passionate core' - Evelyn Hoskins as Carrie
'Passionate core' – Evelyn Hoskins as Carrie
© Claire Bilyard

We all know how bullies can make life a misery at school – and beyond – but for poor Carrie White, the torments that come with being an outsider at school are in another league altogether.

The musical is based on Lawrence D Cohen's 1976 screenplay – itself adapted from Stephen King's blood-soaked novel – with music and lyrics by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford. The original Carrie, wide-eyed and pin-thin Sissy Spacek, was Oscar-nominated for her role as the girl with telekinetic powers, rather like a high-school horror version of Matilda.

Carrie is played here by the wonderful Evelyn Hoskins, who looks frail as a bird but has a soaring voice and a passionate core that simmers just beneath the surface. Her gradual awakening to the possibility of a normal teenage life in "Why Not Me?" is her own ugly duckling-to-swan moment, and Hoskins manages the transformation from crushed schoolgirl to hopeful young woman with ethereal delicacy.

She's superbly supported by Kim Criswell as her mother Margaret, who watches constantly for signs of witchcraft and emerging evil in her daughter. Criswell finds all the subtleties of needy loneliness that underpin this abusive and destructive relationship, with powerful performances in "And Eve was Weak", and "When There's No One".

Making her professional debut, Gabriella Williams is a bright-voiced and beautiful Chris Hargensen, the vengeful Queen Bee, and her spite is backed up by Dex Lee as cool-guy Billy Nolan.

Sue Snell (Sarah McNicholas) and Tommy Ross (Greg Miller-Burns) both capture this well-meaning couple's essential decency, and their tender duet "You Shine" brims with lovers' emotion.

Teachers Mr Stephens (a harassed David Habbin) and Miss Gardner are there to restore order. Miss Gardner is the sort of PE teacher we could all have done with – kind but firm and always looking out for the underdog. Jodie Jacobs brings warmth and empathy to the role, and shares a moving duet with the vulnerable Carrie in "Unsuspecting Hearts".

The ensemble all sing and dance with verve, and the big numbers fizz as a result.

A terrific band, led by musical director Mark Crossland, keep up the energy levels, and Tim Oliver's lighting design is crucial in creating the brooding tension that seeps through the production.

The supernatural powers possessed by Carrie elicit some great special effects from designer Tim McQuillen-Wright, but the real strength of the show is in the characterisations and the slow-building sense of impending disaster. Even if you already know the story's outcome it's still utterly shocking. Director/choreographer Gary Lloyd and his team surely have a hit on their hands.

Carrie continues until 30 May