‘Occasional moments of redemption’: CARMEN 1808 – Union Theatre ★★

In London theatre, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews by Jonathan BazLeave a Comment

Union Theatre, London – until 10 March.

There’s a noble intent behind Phil Willmott’s Carmen 1808 that seeks to meld Bizet’s opera into a narrative inspired by

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Goya’s painting of Napoleon’s troops brutally firing on defenceless Spanish civilians during the Peninsular War of the early 19th century.

Tinkering with greatness does, however, demand greatness from the tinkerer – and there is little that is great about this show. Bizet wrote his tunes for classical operatic voices and, aside from the sonorous charms of Alexander Barria (whose Royal Academy of Music training stands out a mile) as Goya sketching out the unfolding narrative, most of the other voices are lost in the Union’s un-mic’d melee. Rachel Lea-Gray in the title role puts in a fine shift but she’s found wanting in the ‘Habanera’.

In the right hands (and voices) opera’s classics can work spectacularly on the Fringe, but all too often in this show one is left with the distinct feeling that Willmott has done to Bizet’s melodies what Napoleon’s riflemen did to the helpless Spanish.

There are occasional moments of redemption though as alongside Lea-Gray, Ellie Ann Lowe and Charlotte Haines put in solo turns that evidence their vocal skills.

Elsewhere there’s acting that at times is clichéd beyond belief – and quite why the French soldiers speak with stereotyped accents that are straight out ’Allo ’Allo defies comprehension. Just be grateful that Willmott didn’t have his Spaniards speak like Manuel, the Fawlty Towers waiter.

This all plays out on an imaginative set from Justin Williams and Jonny Rust, while Teddy Clements puts in sterling work on the keyboard to accompany the cast. And for those folk seeking a snatch of Bizet’s “hit tunes” (Willmott’s words) there’s a pre-recorded backing track (that’s disgracefully un-credited in the programme) to support the cast in choreographer Adam Haigh’s a toe-tapping flamenco-esque finale. Now That’s What I Call Carmen.

Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.
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Jonathan Baz on Twitter
Jonathan Baz
Theatre critic Jonathan Baz is London-based but with a coverage that extends far beyond the capital to include regional theatre as well as occasional forays into Europe and the USA. He enjoys reviewing new writing as much as seeing fresh interpretations of well-known plays and musicals. Jonathan also sits on the judging panel of London's Off West End Awards ("the Offies") and has published numerous interviews and features with leading figures in the film and theatre world. Away from the arts, Jonathan is a practising Chartered Accountant with a number of clients in the entertainment industries. He blogs at www.jonathanbaz.com and tweets at @MrJonathanBaz.