Carrie continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 30 May.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
There are parallels between Carrie, the musical adaptation of the 1976 screen version of the Stephen King horror story, and the story of its eponymous anti-heroine, Carrie White. Both started out as ostracised, belittled and laughed at: in the world of flop musicals, Carrie is often touted as the watermark, even lending its name to Ken Mandelbaum’s catalogue of Broadway failures, Not Since Carrie.
Like Carrie White, though, one or two individuals have always looked kindly upon the musical, wanting it to have its moment in the spotlight, willing it to believe in itself. And now, with the Southwark Playhouse’s glorious revival of its high school grand guignol, Carrie too gets its moment of prom queen glory.
That could be the moment at which the tenuous analogy breaks up, as the character’s own time in the spotlight soon turns to heck, with pig’s blood and paranormal revenge taking centre stage. However, the moment where the put-upon high school student finally takes control is also the point where a weird high school musical becomes something greater, more majestic and truly unique.
Before that point, the main plot of a shy girl being bullied by the popular kids at high school feels clichéd, thanks to the same story being retrodden so many times in the 40 years since the movie’s release. What saves it is a bevy of sterling performances from the young cast, from Gabriella Williams and Dex Lee as the school’s scheming power couple to Sarah McNicholas and Greg Miller-Burns as Sue and Tommy, the sweethearts who set out to befriend Carrie with disastrous consequences.
The real heart – all red, bloody and pulsating – of the musical is the relationship between Carrie and her Bible-thumping, domineering mother. And it is here where the casting works best. Evelyn Hoskins’ Carrie starts hunched, cowed, always battling to make herself take up as little space as possible, slowly blossoming as she responds to Tommy’s friendly overtures, but unable to control her anger as she reacts to the injustices foisted upon her. It is a mesmerising performance that warms as much as it chills. And while the role of Carrie’s mother could so easily become a portrayal of a monstrous, abusive woman, in Kim Criswell’s hands there are elements of matronly concern, however misguided. Criswell’s powerful voice is put to good use in the best of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford’s impressive score, her character’s religious influences coming to the fore in a number of impeccably delivered arias.
Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set, all distressed concrete and corroded metal, deftly presages the musical’s explosive climax. Director Gary Lloyd is not content with confining the action to the impressive set, though, with the cast making copious use of the aisle spaces in ways that, while drawing the audience closer to the action, also risk losing clarity for those without a good view of certain points.
Knowledge of the source material will lead people to expect copious amounts of blood, and some realisation of Carrie’s burgeoning telekinetic powers. And while lovers of the first will be satisfied by the (literal) bucketload, other special effects are not always as impressive as they need to be. Carrie’s first attempts to exercise her powers are overshadowed and (for some audience members) blocked by the actions of other performers on stage. Prior to the end of Act I what should be a sense of Carrie’s capabilities increasing does not quite come off, even allowing for an unfortunate malfunction of one effect on press night.
However, the effects in the second half are more impressive, and as the body count piles up so does the effectiveness of the pyrotechnic, physical and mental horror. It is here too that Miller-Burns’ sensitive Tommy proves an adept counterpart to Hoskins’ demure Carrie, providing one with hope of a successful outcome even though that is never going to be on the cards.
Tim Oliver’s lighting designs, which impress throughout, really come into their own as Carrie wreaks her revenge, before Hoskins and Criswell deliver one final moment of mother-daughter bonding that feels truly earned.
One is left with a sense that we have witnessed the emergence of a fearsome talent in Evelyn Hoskins, and that the spectre of failure that has haunted Carrie may finally have been laid to rest.