A small scale production of Carmen is a brave undertaking but Chris Monks has made something of a speciality out of this kind of thing and the talented and hard working company in the Stephen Joseph theatre’s summer production make it work. This is a Carmen for today, set in a shopping mall, and it works very well. Love and desire don’t change over the centuries and this is a timeless story of obsessive passion and reckless self will which is never going to end well whenever it happens.
The production takes a while to lift off and the early scenes in the mall seem a little thin, but once the main characters are established and the plot kicks in, the claustrophobic small scale personal scenes work well in the round and it becomes both moving and chilling. Some of the dialogue and recitative doesn’t quite come off but the best of it is great. I loved the moment where Carmen explains her name away by saying that her mum got pregnant in Ibiza and the transformation of bullfighter Don Escamillo into an Italian stallion premiership footballer, Tony Amor is pitch perfect. This is a rhyme that sent a chuckle around the audience at the start of the toreador’s song and I should have seen it coming. There are some nice directorial touches throughout, making the most of the new setting and using the cast cleverly to keep things moving and vibrant. The costumes are very well judged and help to define the characters well when the cast are doubling. I’m not sure that the video snippets worked for me, they were a bit cheesy and really needed to be more believable, but I can see why they were needed, not just to cover scene changes but to provide a context for Tony’s character.
The strength of the production definitely lies in the performances. This is a talented cast who have to work incredibly hard throughout. In a space so small that you can see every detail of every performance that kind of commitment shows. Caroline Keiff as Carmen looks stunning and sings beautifully. The wildness of the character was underplayed, thankfully, but it was there when it needed to be and it was in her eyes the whole time. Neil Moors gives a delightful performance as Tony which is utterly believable. He charms the socks off the audience as we understand the kind of man that he is sending up without it ever being allowed to descend into parody. I also liked Gareth Kennerley’s performance as Johnny Jay (Don Jose) very much.. It was both truthful and moving, a clear portrait of a man who was potentially good and loving being destroyed by his obsessive love for someone who didn’t deserve it. Johnny is offered love, and a way out of danger by Michelle (Michaela) but can’t bring himself to accept it. If only love was always given where it is deserved things would have been very different. Michelle was beautifully played by Jennifer Rhodes who has a lovely stage presence and a great voice. She did a lot more besides during the course of the production and I was full of admiration for her.
Finally, you have to take your hat off to Georges Bizet. The music is irresistible, full of melody and passion. Any song which can get a midweek matinee audience in Scarborough clapping along to it after around 130 years, just because they can’t help it, as the reprise of the toreador song in the club shop did has to be a major achievement.