Blow High, Blow Low: Carousel at the Open Air Theatre

Just getting to the end of a show at the Open Air Theatre when the weather is iffy feels like an accomplishment, for the audience as well as the company.

On Monday’s rainy press night for Carousel, the cast, who’d spent 2.5 hours not just singing, dancing and acting through the intermittent drizzle, but doing so on Tom Scutt’s steeply raked wooden set, split open to a constant revolve, deserved their standing ovation for that alone.

Another dark cloud looming over proceedings was the pingdemic. As industry guests muttered about Joseph joining the ranks of The Lion King and Jersey Boys as new casualties this week, I spotted the insert in the programme explaining how Carousel has been affected – the actors playing Mrs Mullin and Jigger (plus his cover) and two bubbled pairs of swings were all in required isolation.

Declan Bennett as Billy Bigelow

Artistic director Timothy Sheader’s intentionally drab production matches the weather, meteorologically and medically. His revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1945 Broadway musicals, seemingly (oddly) transplanted from Maine to the north of England, is drained of colour. And rather than brush over the domestic abuse that makes the storyline so problematic to modern audiences, or tie the behaviour to the period, Sheader holds a mirror up to today’s Covid-strained circumstances.

A programme feature titled “an epidemic within the pandemic” details the alarming rise of domestic abuse during the UK’s lockdowns, and points theatregoers to Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline.

In this Carousel, Declan Bennett’s Billy Bigelow is not just flawed or tormented, he’s a tightly coiled spring, toxic male anger and violence always just about to be unleashed. There’s no redemption for him in heaven.

A big attraction of the show is the casting as Netty Fowler of Joanna Riding, who won the first of her two Oliviers for her 1992 performance as the young lovestruck abuse victim Julie Jordan in Nicholas Hytner’s outing at the National Theatre. I wonder what advice she may have shared with Carly Bawden who takes the role here?

Joanna Riding as Netty Fowler in Carousel

Christina Modestou is a fun scene-stealer as Julie’s frivolous friend Carrie Pipperidge, amusingly coupled with John Pfumojena as her proper and properly ambitious intended Mr Snow.

Drew McOnie’s typically ingenious choreography is another major highlight. My favourite ensemble number, and in my mind the musical’s catchiest ditty, even more so than June Is Busting Out All Over, is the whalers’ Blow High, Blow Low.

Despite its wonderful songs, including If I Loved You, What’s the Use of Wond’rin? and, of course, You’ll Never Walk Alone, Carousel is one of my least favourite of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classics. Sheader’s revival has made me reconsider the musical, and the ways difficult subjects can be repositioned, but it hasn’t made me love it any better.

Nevertheless, I loved my evening spinning round with this hardy company at Regent’s Park. Every visit to the Open Air, London’s leafiest theatre, is a magical experience.

Carousel is at the Open Air Theatre until 25 September 2021.

Show photos

Production photography by Johan Persson.