THEATRE REVIEW Carmen Jones
FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON
For the inaugural production of the renovated Festival Hall, artistic director Jude Kelly has chosen Oscar Harnmetstein's 1953 musical, which updates Bizet's opera to World War Two and relocates it in America's Deep South. Though there was a film version in 1954 with Dorothy Dandridge and Han-y Belafonte, the actual stage show wasn't seen in London until 1991. Carmen works in a parachute factory; Jose is a GI-called Joe; Escamillo is no longer a toreador, but a prizefighter called Husky Miller.
The Festival Hall has never been a good venue for stage shows. The London Philharmonic and Philharmonia alternate performances. The orchestra, dead centre on the stage and dressed in holiday gear, is very distracting. The action takes place behind them, to the side of them and in front on a catwalk. Kelly's production is so busy that it is often difficult to know where to look. The chorus, let loose, runs about all over the place, constantly upstaging the leads while they are singing.
Mezzo-soprano Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi as Carmen strides the catwalk in a slashed red dress. Slim and leggy, she behaves like a fashion model. In the final scene, mimed boxing goes on in slow motion behind the lovers so that the audiences can actually see the knockout punch and the murder happening simultaneously. Brothers Andrew and Rodney Clarke are honest Joe and macho Husky. Sherry Boone is the nice girl Joe ditches and her singing of "My Joe" is one of the evening's high spots. The other show-stopper is Brenda Edwards "beating out dat rhythm on a drum". Carmen Jones is an excellent showcase for an allblack cast, but, unfortunately, Hammerstein 's vernacular lyrics are totally inaudible.
In the 18th century in England the public in search of entertainment would go to Bedlam and observe the lunatics. In France the public would go to Charenton and see the inmates acting in productions written and staged by the Marquis de Sade. In the 20th century theatregoers and cinernagoers would watch actors of the calibre of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, John Mills, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud pretending to be mentally damaged individuals in the certain knowledge that such roles were the quickest and surest route to winning an Oscar.
Ening, a Norwegian novel by Ingvar Ambjomsen, was turned into a play and then into a film which went on to win an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2002. It arrives in London in an adaptation by Simon Bent, who, not knowing any Norwegian, worked from the film and the subtitles. The play is an excellent career move for John Sinun, who is best known to television audiences for his performances in Dr Who and Life on Mars.
Two middle-aged men are let out of an asylum and placed in a state-sponsored flat in Oslo so that the social services can see if they can survive in a normal everyday environment. Elting (Shinn), a timid, neurotic, fastidious mummy's boy who hasn't got over his mother's death, is given to hiding in cupboards. He scuttles around the flat, unable to go out and unwilling to answer the phone. "Maybe," he says, "I don't belong in the real world." Kiel] (the engaging Adrian Bower) is a hulking slob who likes food and is obsessed with sex. "There's nothing wrong with me," he says. "I'm just a bit funny." Together the odd couple short and tall, introvert and extrovert, brains and brawn are a classic comic double act. A pregnant woman living in the flat above instantly falls in love with Kjell. Meanwhile, BEng starts writing poetry and puts copies of his poems in packets of sauerkraut which he leaves in supermarkets. The play, episodic, sentimental and never judgmental, traces their gradual rehabilitation.