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Carmen 1808 review at Union Theatre, London – ‘ambitious, but flawed’

The cast of Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre, London. Photo: Scott Rylander The cast of Carmen 1808 at Union Theatre, London. Photo: Scott Rylander
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For his adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen, Phil Willmott has been, in part, inspired by Goya’s painting Los Fusilamientos del Tres de Mayo and the atrocities of the Peninsular War.

Willmott’s Carmen in no longer just a wily gypsy girl, she’s a resistance worker, using her seductive powers to further the rebellion against Napoleon.

Converting a much-loved opera into a musical is an audacious move, especially as Oscar Hammerstein II has already done it so perfectly with Carmen Jones. For the most part this is an intelligent re-imagining of the story with the character of Goya, portrayed by Alexander Barria, witnessing the events leading up to the massacre.

Willmott’s lyrics are bold, passionate and liberally peppered with enough revolutionary sentiment to match the second half of the musical Les Miserables. His book however is disappointing. Teddy Clements’ arrangements of Bizet’s score heave with sultry Mediterranean passion, but the historic exposition is rather wooden in places and seems strangely dry and formulaic within such a rich, opulent composition.

Adam Haigh’s feverish choreography helps a little and the animated cast perform with enthusiasm, although the old-fashioned style chorus grates a little.

Maximilian Marston makes for a noble, if mercurial Captain and his banter with Thomas Mitchells’ dissolute Corporal provides some humour. Rachel Lea-Gray is a competent vocalist and moves well but sadly she struggles to present the earthy seductiveness that is the essence of Carmen’s character.

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Ambitious musical adaptation undermined by an exposition-heavy script and some curious casting choices