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Review Round-up: Critics War Over Apollo Carrie

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Carrie's War opened at the Apollo Theatre last night (See Today's 1st Night Photos), marking a return to the London stage for the Novel Theatre production which started life at Sadler’s Wells back in 2006 (See News, 6 Mar 2009).

Adapted by Emma Reeves from the 1973 novel by Nina Bawden based on her own childhood experiences as an evacuee in Wales during the War, Carrie's War tells of young Carrie Willow and her brother Nick, wartime evacuees billeted to the mining valleys in Wales with old Mr Evans and his kind sister Lou. At Christmas, they’re sent to Druid’s Bottom to collect a goose from Mrs Gotobed where they meet Hepzibah, the witch and eccentric Mister Johnny, and hear about the curse of an ancient skull.

The production, which continues at the Apollo until 12 September is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II on 3 September. Andrew Loudon directs a cast led by Sarah Edwardson (Carrie), James Joyce (Nick), Kacey Ainsworth (Auntie Lou) and Prunella Scales (Mrs Gotobed), and it continues to 12 September.

There was no real consensus among the reviews, with overnight critics divided squarely into camps – those who welcomed the production as “next best thing to War Horse” in terms of West End family entertainment, and those who felt Carrie's War “old fashioned” and “doggedly literal” in its approach. Of the critics included here, most awarded four stars and praised the “fine directness” of the performances (particularly Edwardson's Carrie) – but the 'two Michaels', messrs Coveney and Billington, were united in their dismissal of the production as a “disservice” to Bawden's book and, without targeting a specific demographic, “an odd addition to the West End list”. However, with no shortage of allies, it doesn't look like Carrie's War will be evacuating the Apollo just yet.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - “It’s an odd addition to the West End list, too old-fashioned for a good new children’s show and of little obvious appeal to adults … Scales has a ghost-like charm as she fades visibly throughout the play, though one feared for her falling off the set. Carrie and Nick are played by Sarah Edwardson and James Joyce in that over-eager adults-as-children style which is only marginally less annoying than a children-as-children style. They are ten and twelve going on forty-five … Although Bawden’s Mr Evans is stick thin and mean-minded, Sion Tudor Owen plays him as a roaring bull resembling Brian Blessed, and Kacey Ainsworth as Auntie Lou, best known perhaps as Little Mo in EastEnders, fidgets and fusses with a touching efficiency. Best of all is James Beddard as Mr Johnny, the first time, surely, a genuinely disabled actor has made such a marvellous meal of a disabled role in the West End … Andrew Loudon’s direction is competent enough for the show; but is it distinctive enough to guarantee a surprise success?”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Nina Bawden's acclaimed children's novel was first published in 1973, when I was 18, so I missed it as a nipper and never discovered it subsequently. I therefore arrived at the final preview of this stage version expecting it to be packed with kids, only to discover that 90 per cent of the audience consisted of adults, mostly in their thirties and forties … Emma Reeves has adapted the book with skill, making the flashback between Carrie's adulthood and childhood especially poignant, and Andrew Loudon directs a continuously absorbing production, evocatively designed and with the cast singing chapel hymns between scenes. There is a satisfying feeling that everyone involved is intent on serving the story, rather than their own egos … The performances have a fine directness with Sarah Edwardson outstanding as both the childhood and the adult Carrie, tapping into her character's turbulent emotions with touching truthfulness … and Kacey Ainsworth makes you feel like cheering as the repressed spinster sister who finally escapes to freedom … This is a funny, sad and deeply rewarding piece of theatrical storytelling - whatever age you happen to be.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - “One question haunted me as I watched this adaptation of Nina Bawden's popular 1973 novel: who precisely is it for? … Novel adaptations are either imaginative re-creations of the original or doggedly literal synopses. Emma Reeves' version of Bawden's book falls stolidly into the latter category … What gets lost is Carrie's pervasive sense of guilt: the belief that dogs her adult life that, through her rash actions, she has brought about the downfall of Druid's Bottom. But, by underplaying that and stripping the story down to its externals, Reeves reminds us how much it borrows from Gothic fiction … All this would be fine if the play were dashingly staged; but to call Andrew Loudon's production pedestrian would insult the walking community … There are serviceable performances from Sarah Edwardson and James Joyce as the evacuees; Sion Tudor Owen thunders as the dogmatic patriarch and Prunella Scales looks in briefly to endow his hidden sister with a silvery grace. But novels are different from plays and the evening does a disservice to Bawden's exploration of childhood fears and fantasies.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “There have been more adventurous theatrical adaptations of well-loved books … But few have gripped as much as Emma Reeves’ reworking of Nina Bawden’s tale of evacuees in the Welsh Valleys in the Second World War. If you want to take a pre-teen, maybe even a teen who still relishes a good clear story, to the theatre in the school holidays, well, Carrie’s War is probably the next best thing to War Horse … Certainly, Edwardson is more than plausible as an earnest 12-year-old with the ability to win the heart of John Heffernan as a bright but gauche fellow evacuee, charm Prunella Scales as an ailing old heiress, and even manipulate Sion Tudor Owen as the religiose brother who covets Scales’ property while ignoring her … Loudon’s production doesn’t fully catch the weird, creepy side of a house said to be haunted by the ghost of an African slave boy. It would be good if the sinister breathing that Carrie hears, or thinks she hears, carried more spookily across the footlights … However, the acting is consistently excellent and the production achieves what Reeves describes in the programme as its primary aim. Does it 'tell a very human story about people’s mistakes and misunderstandings'? And is that story 'cracking'? On both counts, yes.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “Emma Reeves’ affectionate adaptation of Nina Bawden’s 1973 novel will appeal to those who grew up with the book as well as to anyone seeking family-friendly entertainment … Events are bookended by two scenes in which the mature Carrie, returning to Wales, reflects on the past and the emotions she associates with it. The shifts in time are neatly handled, and Andrew Loudon’s production is assured in all its details. The setting is evoked through Welsh-language hymns, and the wartime atmosphere by means of period radio broadcasts … Edward Lipscomb’s clear design contrasts the interiors of the two houses, which sandwich a symbolically scraggly parcel of Welsh countryside. Both versions of Carrie are sweetly played by the versatile Sarah Edwardson, and there is a nicely measured performance by John Heffernan as Albert, with whom she develops an edgily intimate relationship … The adaptation could perhaps have done with souping up the more sinister aspects of Carrie’s Welsh experience - the ghostly breathing she claims to hear, the menace of the “screaming skull” that’s kept in Mrs Gotobed’s library - but this dramatic version of Bawden’s modern classic is wholesome, imaginative and polished.”

  • - by Theo Bosanquet & Ashley Alexander

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