Onboard the Carousel

Tom Sutcliffe considers a Christian break in the circle

erenc Molnar (1878 to 1952) had the Midas touch. A great deal of what he wrote travelled and made money – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel going perhaps

furthest. The son of a famous Hungarian Jewish physician, he became a journalist, studied law, converted to Christianity and moved to the USA in the late 1930s. Liliom, the play on which Carousel was based, was unsuccessful when it first appeared in 1909. Its blend of sentiment, realism, and fantasy (not quite the pearly gates) was probably a bit too unsettling. But fundamentally Carousel is the same material – deeply moving because of its wish for us all to escape the cycle whereby the sins of the father are visited upon the child.

Merciful judgement

J.B. Priestley (1894–1984) must have known it, and it is interesting that one of the most successful play productions of the last 20 years all over the world was Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (a play exactly contemporary with Britten’s Peter Grimes) staged by Stephen Daldry and his then partner, designer Ian MacNeil, and toured everywhere – which exploits the same territory of ‘merciful judgment’. Perhaps we should stop wondering whether people are ‘really’ religious, and accept that particular religious enthusiasm goes in dangerous tidal waves, and that the doctrine of grace is not just or only Christian – that it reflects a deeply felt instinct about the goodness of the source from which we spring, which is the foundation of all that can matter about us human beings.

Opera North are continuing to show us what an opera company should be like by including a run of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fine musical in their current season. In Germany regional opera companies all include musicals in their rep, and Carousel is virtually an opera: Richard Rodgers at his best, incredibly persuasive beautiful music and a roster of superb and catchy songs. It is easy to see why Puccini toyed with making an opera of the story. Carousel does remind us how we look in the eyes of eternity. It is all about the difference between right and wrong, Molnar was accused of promoting bourgeois values. Of course.

A well told story

I was sad the Leeds matinee audience seemed to be average age my age, about to enter my 70th year which looks old on paper. But the price of the tickets would help explain that – and Jo Davies’s agreeably economical but engagingly energized production does feel a touch musty with a slight feeling of this is how a musical goes. John Woodvine was wonderful as the Star keeper, and Dr Seldon, and I enjoyed Candida Benson’s raunchy determination as the Carousel owner Mrs Mullin. Keith Higham got exactly the right mix of resentment and implicit repentance in his carousel barker Billy Bigelow, loved by all the girls, unquestioning in his egotism. Gillene Herbert was a meltingly lovely Julie Jordan, and Claire Boulter a sparky lively Carrie with Joseph Shovelton’s Snow, Elena Ferraris Nettie, and Michael Rouse’s Jigger sharply drawn in support.

Opera North has no company, and the cast assembled for this departure from their usual territory is well and precisely chosen. The dancing is excellent on the scale required, the story very well told. And when we get to the gates of heaven, the whole audience are primed to have their withers wrung: a chance to help Billy’s daughter Louise, whom he did not live to see, is nothing less than God’s agent would want to supply. In the theatre all things are possible, which is why the theatre is perhaps more reliably God’s domain than the Church.

Funny and thought-provoking

At the Theatre Royal, Bath the Ustinov Studio is presenting a very interesting, touching, often funny play by American Sarah Ruhl called In the Next Room which is all about the medical treatment of hysteria at the dawn of psycho-analysis and with the benefit of electricity which had led to the invention of the vibrator (by which patients could mechanically be supplied with a relaxing, fatiguing orgasm, resolving their tension). The subtitle is The vibrator play and some of the funniest scenes result from the little electric gadget being overstretched and fusing – and the clinic’s nurse having to take over manually which was just as effective.

When done under doctor’s supervision, the beneficial effects were evidently well attested. The treatment is never called a spade by Ms Ruhl, and the performers maintain appropriately straight faces even if the audience doesn’t, quite.

Where was this all happening? In the USA of course. It is an American play, and also has concern with breast-feeding – the doctor’s wife needing a wet nurse who turns out to be black (a marvellously delicate performance by Rakie Ayola). Paul Hickey and Katie Lightfoot are the doctor and his wife, the latter capable of terrible faux pas but essentially goodhearted.

Flora Montgomery is the delicious principal patient Sabrina, with Leo Irving as an English painter passing through en route from studying in Italy and also requiring unusual attention for hysteria. The period is perfectly evoked in Simon Kelly’s beautiful set and costumes. The story is naturalistically told, subtly observed in Laurence Boswell’s firm intelligent staging. Not a great play, but it does make very thought-provoking theatre. ND

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