Saturday 9th May 2015, matinée
It was with ghoulish anticipation that we approached the Southwark Playhouse on Saturday afternoon to see ‘Carrie the Musical’, making a mental note not to sit anywhere near the front row (quite difficult in that space of course). Based on Stephen King’s first novel, the publicity describes this as an ‘unlikely Cinderella story’, thus immediately earning it the understatement of the year award. For those who have been living in a cave for the past forty years, Carrie tells the story of a vulnerable seventeen year old, bullied at school, and under the influence of her fanatically religious, hell-fire preaching mother who hasn’t told her the facts of life, and whose answer to most problems is to lock her in a tiny ‘prayer closet’, not realising that her daughter’s interests in the supernatural are taking an unexpected turn. As Carrie begins to discover her own powers of telekinesis, a well-meaning invitation to the high-school prom turns very nasty indeed.
It’s hard to believe that the musical was first performed in 1988 (and even harder to believe it was first staged by the RSC), and even allowing for some updating in a new version, the story has worn very well, dealing with those timeless themes of teenage angst, coupled with the pressure-cooker environment of high school as senior prom approaches.
Director Gary Lloyd has used the space effectively to create a vaguely threatening atmosphere of run-down municipality, with some clever visual trickery by Jeremy Chernick accompanying Carrie’s growing supernatural powers, and excellent use of light and sound to punctuate the horror. Ultimately though, it’s a fairly straightforward re-telling of a popcorn movie that has somehow attained an iconic status.
There are certainly shocks and plenty of blood in store, but it lacks the subtle creepiness of more modern horror genres. Michael Gore’s music (yes, really), is very good at portraying the high emotions required, with some particularly intense duets and solos for Carrie and her mother, high energy numbers for the schoolkids, and a poem set to music which symbolises Carrie’s hope that she might re-invent herself before it’s too late. Powerful though it is, the tunes are not particularly memorable. They lack complexity, and coupled with lyrics which don’t seem to bring much psychological depth, ultimately the music doesn’t take the story to the next level. It seems to be skin deep. And with a plot as insubstantial as this, some musical momentum would have helped.
The performances raised the material to undeserved heights, with spot-on casting, intense focus and energy, and stand-out leads. Gabriella Williams as the bullying ringleader is deliciously bitchy with the untouchable arrogance of youth. As Tommy and Sue, the unfortunate lovers whose attempts to put things right precipitate disaster, Greg Miller-Burns and Sarah McNicholas are melodious and sincere, and Jodie Jacobs as Miss Gardner the gym teacher not only perfectly captures the essence of the archetypal PE teacher, tough on the outside, but with tenderness deep down, but adds some powerful vocals to the performance. Evelyn Hoskins is extraordinary as Carrie – she packs a huge punch with a voice that belies her size, and brings a likeable weirdness to the character. Kim Crisswell is a Diva in all the best senses of the word, leaving an impressive catalogue of musical theatre roles in her wake. As Carrie’s mother, her presence alone is enough to convey the psychological power she has over her daughter, and her heartrending struggles as she tortures herself for past sins brings the house down at several points during the show.
This is certainly an enjoyable and entertaining show and a high quality if a little unimaginative production, but we’re not sure it is an undiscovered and enduring classic. And for anyone looking for insights into high school massacres, you might be better off with Michael Moore.