Carmen Jones @ Royal Festival Hall, London

cast list
Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi
Andrew Clarke
Sherry Boone
Rodney Clarke
Andee-Louise Hypolite
Phillip Browne
Akiya Henry
John Moabi
Brenda Edwards
Rolan Bell
Joe Speare
Joanna Francis
George Daniel Long

directed by
Jude Kelly
Gosh, this is a rather mixed bag of a show. This was supposed to be the Royal Festival Hall’s big moment: a large, lavish production to let the world know they’re back open for business, yet it felt muddled and hurried and unsure of itself. Do you hear that sound (despite the muffled amplification)? That’s the sound of opportunities being missed.

Jude Kelly’s production of Carmen Jones, the 1943 musical by Oscar Hammerstein, based on Bizet’s original opera, could and should have been spectacular. But it lost points on many levels. Hammerstein’s original Broadway production relocated the Carmen story to a parachute factory in the US, but Kelly adds another layer of distance, swapping this Deep South setting for a Cuban backdrop.

This change of locations added nothing to the proceedings and was actually rather confusing the world portrayed was specifically American in its references, so the setting made little sense. This confusion was compounded by a rather basic-looking set that had been plopped onto the Royal Festival Hall stage leaving the bare back wall exposed behind it resulting in an overall look that seemed rather cheap and thrown together.

The amplification, as mentioned, was fuzzy in places, making it difficult to follow the dialogue at times and the lighting did things no favours either. And yet, and yet, it had moments that were quite striking.

Following a shaky first half, the show was far more cohesive and compelling after the interval. There were some exhilarating moments of percussive choreography, most notably that of Beat Out Dat Rhythm On a Drum, and a beautiful solo turn from Sherry Boone, when, as the heartbroken Cindy Lou (whose lover has been swiped by the seductive Carmen) she mournfully sings My Joe.

Unfortunately, performance-wise, the South African actress Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, who plays the volatile Carmen herself, wasn’t really in the same league as Boone. Her voice was strong and she had a degree of stage presence but she failed to generate any real chemistry with Andrew Clarke’s Joe. He, in turn, though also strong of voice, was rather overshadowed by Rodney Clarke’s hugely charismatic turn as the champion boxer Husky Miller.

When the show worked, it worked well. The casually clad orchestra, seated in a pit in the centre of the stage with the action playing out both behind and in front of them, were superb. (The production will alternate the London Philharmonic with the Philharmonia throughout the show’s six-week run).

There are also some excellent voices amongst the large cast and some visually striking moments, but moments are all they are. The production simply doesn’t hang together particularly well, and the explosions of passion and emotion that one would hope for from a show like this arrive only intermittently.

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