Carousel, Barbican, London

There is a wistful quality that runs through Carousel, despite its famously rousing numbers such as “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. First performed in 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, about the ill-fated marriage between a fairground barker and a mill girl, spoke to an audience familiar with loss, longing and regret. No-good-boy Billy Bigelow is allowed a brief return to earth after his death to see the graduation of the daughter he never knew: how many bereaved parents must have been moved by the idea of a fleeting return from beyond the grave.

Opera North’s superb production delicately brings out the dark shades in the story from the outset. You notice here just how many songs are about time, about hopes, dreams and possibilities – even the big love duet between Billy and Julie is couched in the conditional: “If I loved you.” Anthony Ward’s fine set is pitched between pictorial realism – the wooden boards, clapboard house and coastline evoking New England in the early 20th century – and a dreamier symbolism. The carousel, where Julie meets Billy, is simply, sparsely created with a circle of glowing light-bulbs, which remains suspended over the action, reminding us of the revolving years. And Jo Davies’s beautifully modulated staging is both joyous and haunting.

The lead characters are vividly characterised. Julie and her friend Carrie emerge as strong, spirited women, tugging at the tight leash on which their work in the mill keeps them. Carrie, delightfully and impishly played by Sarah Tynan, has the sense to marry Mr Snow (an engaging Joseph Shovelton), a decent, hard-working chap – but despite his many plans, she clearly intends to manage him. Julie (a lovely, warm performance from Katherine Manley) falls for the roguish Billy Bigelow. Michael Todd Simpson’s Billy, with his hair curling over his collar, has the right touch of sexy danger, but also projects his character’s volatility and vulnerability. All four interpret the songs with great subtlety and, as opera singers, are able to unleash real power.

Around them the chorus, wittily choreographed, creates a believable community. There are sore spots: Billy’s death is rather underwhelming and the musical’s suggestion that a slap can feel like a kiss still strikes me as deeply dubious. But this is an excellent production. The orchestra, conducted by James Holmes, delivers the score with delicacy and depth and the final ensemble rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is tremendously uplifting.;

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