Sunday, 18 February 2018

REVIEW: Carmen at the Union Theatre

As part of the Union’s Theatre ESSENTIAL CLASSICS 2018 season comprising of Shaw’s HEARTBREAK HOUSE and Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, we are transported to Seville with CARMEN, a re-conceived musical theatre evening based of course on Bizet’s popular opera. The classic melodies bring warmth and memories to mind in this fun, sensual and funny show filled with talent.

Carmen takes place in 1808 at a time of civil unrest and political uncertainty, when Spain was occupied by the French. Down in Seville, it is hot and the cigarette factory workers, men and women alike, are resisting the occupation as much as they can. A local gypsy, Carmen, acts as a spy to try to get information from the Spanish collaborators. When a love story ensues between her and young Captain Velarde, who was previously very dutiful, love becomes blinding and leads to tragedy.

The large company of actors are comfortably sitting around, teasing each other and playing music as the audience enters the theatre. The set design by Justin Williams is very precise and takes us to Southern Spain in the early 1800s, where streets are small, action takes place on public squares and a lot happens in the shadows after sundown. 

The set is very well completed by the beautiful lighting design by Ben Jacobs. It transitions seamlessly between scenes, offering a strong dark opening scene for example. The atmosphere is continuously warm and mysterious, whether up on the balcony or in the prison. 

Finally, the costume design by Penn O’Gara creates strong visuals throughout, with the women wearing a lot of white and the men wearing shades of brown. There is one scene with Frenchmen singing a funny song about being… French! Their long grey coats seemed quite out of place in the Seville heat – what would French soldiers wear in the Summer?

And then of course, there’s Carmen! She stands out in black and red, wearing deep red roses in her long flowy black hair. 

She is not in heels, as she is a person who needs to run around, dance and be
stable in order to keep ahead of everyone. She is a force, flirtatious and daring, hiding her fear and disappointment about love to everyone. Rachel Lea-Gray as the lead is wonderful, mixing maturity and courage with youth and a strong understanding of her femininity. Lea-Gray’s voice is gorgeous, with Bizet’s more difficult melodies just rolling out of her mouth. I also enjoyed the conflict she went through as she fell in love with Corporal José and the detail in so many of her looks when she was talking to her friends.

Alexander Barria, playing Francisco Goya, is a caring and attentive force with a beautiful operatic presence as well. 

There were some very strong members of the ensemble. Ellie Ann Lowe (the romantic Amalia) and Jodie Beth Meyer (Manuela, Carmen’s friend) commanded the space whenever they spoke up or sang, as well as Chris Britton and Blair Gibson as Mateo and Javier Rizal. I would have liked to see more songs performed by Maximilian Marston as Velarde!

The choreography by Adam Haigh made me want to see it in a bigger space! It was highly energetic, with fans and knives used, and just made you want to clap along. 

Phil Willmott directed his troupe of actors very well, with every character having their own personality and individuality, and always reminding us of where we were set. 

With this show reducing Bizet to 90 minutes, some of it perhaps feels a little rushed, which is hard to avoid! However, we are delighted to hear the classic tunes and hear the beautiful voices.

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

Rating: ★★★★
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