Carrie The Musical**** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: May 5, 2015 in Theatre

CarrieThe shows that we remember best are the very good ones and the very bad ones; the mediocre ones slip from the memory. I saw Carrie before it took its place in the graveyard of Broadway flops, during its short run in Stratford in 1988 and I cannot recall a thing about it. On the other hand, I am still reeling from the shock of Brian dePalma’s film version, seen several years before that. Maybe this highlights the difficulties involved in making a musical out of something fantastical that can only work if it is taken completely seriously. Unlike the many tongue-in-cheek horror musicals, Stephen King’s parable on the theme of bullying is rooted in the reality of the modern world and demands to be treated in deadly earnest. Gary Lloyd’s new production does not completely sweep away the suspicion that the show’s concept was flawed from the outset, but the gusto shown by the company and the technical skill of the production team diminish it very considerably. Evelyn Hoskins is wonderful in the title role, the 17-year-old girl with telekinetic powers who is bullied viciously at school and smothered by her mother’s religious zealotry at home; slight of frame and stooping, with her face peeping out shyly through her long red hair, she is pitiable, then hopeful and ultimately vengeful. Her unruly classmates (a little over-age as played here, but we can let that pass) pile on the cruelty, except for Sue (Sarah McNicholas) and her boyfriend Tommy (Greg Miller-Burns) who devise a misguided scheme to help her. Leggy blonde Chris (Gabriella Williams) is the would-be Prom Queen who diverts to become Queen of Mean, Carrie’s chief tormentor. Back in the 80s, some elements here could have been likened to Grease, but the brand of American High School musicals is now even more familiar and Michael Gore’s rock-inspired score often struggles in the early stages to raise the show above the ordinary. Furthermore, Lloyd’s choreography has little that is distinctive about it and it begins to look as if we are in for Glee without any glee, until the appearance of Kim Criswell, playing Carrie’s mother Margaret, brings about an extraordinary transformation. She gives her scenes the feel of grand opera, attacking the role with the ferocity that she might have applied to singing Wagner. This is a terrifying portrayal of a crazed woman who is no longer capable of distinguishing right from wrong and it alters the tone of the entire show. The second act is much more consistent and assured, with Gore’s score improving too, played superbly by Mark Crossland’s seven-piece band. The recurring A Night We’ll Never Forget ratchets up the tension leading to the fateful Prom and Criswell’s rendition of the gorgeous “aria” When There’s No-one puts the cherry on top of the cake. Dean Pritchard’s lyrics and Laurence D Cohen’s book work well together throughout in compressing King’s story into key scenes and telling it with clarity. The Large at Southwark Playhouse, back to the three-sided configuration that has been so effective for musicals before, adds to the production’s intensity, which is enhanced further by Tim Oliver’s excellent lighting designs. The mayhem created when Carrie’s powers are unleashed is suggested well, within obvious limitations, but it is slightly disappointing that the same effect is used to climax both acts. Southwark Playhouse may well have a big hit on its hands here, but whether the show could retain its impact if transferred to a conventional theatre in the West End must be questionable. One thing for sure is that, thanks largely to two stupendous leading performances, this is not a production to be forgotten in a hurry.

Performance date: 4 May 2015

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