Carmen 1808 ~ Union Theatre

Carmen 1808 stays at Union Theatre until 10th March, book tickets here: Union Theatre Box Office

Star rating: ***

Reviewed by: Francesca Mepham 

Being very familiar with Bizet’s original Opera, I was intrigued to see this re-imagining of Carmen as a musical theatre production at Union Theatre, performed by The Phil Willmott Company.

The set design instantly stood out as very impressive as the show began, with the smoky haze giving a feeling of authenticity and unrest brewing. It’s 1808 and Napoleon’s army has invaded Spain, with its brutality, inspiring Francisco Goya to paint one of his most poignant works, Los Fusilamientos del treat de mayo. Goya as the narrator is one of the highlights of this production, with Alexander Barria’s captivating lyric baritone welcoming you in to Carmen 1808.

Once Carmen is introduced on stage in the seductive shadows, as a spy for the resistance, the expectation is high for a sultry and tempting other worldly character, which Rachel Lea- Gray does with much charisma. With Bizet’s original recitative replaced by the new alternative story, by Phil Willmott, one of its most well-known and defiant songs Habanera, should be bold and engaging, but the vocal and arrangement meant it sounded restrained, rather than a rich sensual vocal tone, that would have brought it to life. I wanted to hear this number especially, explored more, vocally.

The chemistry between the whole company definitely resonated, especially between the resistance who executed Adam Haigh’s traditional Spanish high-energy choreography, with conviction. The vocals unfortunately, at times felt a bit lost in the space but with just Musical Director Teddy Clements on keyboard accompaniment, this helped to slightly conceal it. With Charlotte Haines’ strong Soprano register as noblewoman Josephina, midway through the production (as with Barria as Goya) it only reinforced the work that was needed, on the majority of the cast’s solo vocal projection, in the theatre.

Corporal Luis, the salt of the earth womanising soldier, is acted superbly by Thomas Mitchell, who gives a comic touch to Carmen 1808. As does a short musical number by a group of French Soldiers whose silliness is absolutely infectious. They contrasted with the more sensitive and aristocratic Captain Verlade, who is a tortured romantic hero played by Maximilian Marston. The scenes with his love Carmen, left you wanting to see more of the pair together on stage.

Carmen 1808 is a bold re-imagining of a classic, by Phil Willmott, which has a strong cast dramatically, but musically the songs could have been delivered with more conviction, with vocals not always being projected fully to the audience. Lea-Gray and Marston were compelling as the central love story, performed with much unexpected tenderness. The ensemble dance numbers were a joy and I could easily imagine in a theatre twice the size. Theatre is about taking risks and this production is a great example, of just how important it is to breathe new life and interpretation, in to classic works.

Photo credits: Scott Rylander 

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