The best way to describe this play is as a sideshow. There is a performance of Bizet’s opera Carmen somewhere, and playing out around it are these connected lives. Think 2004’s Crash mixed with Shakespeare in Love. A mix of portraits, but with a master text to play with.
The Almeida, the West End’s cupboard cousin, has been stripped bare by designer Lizzie Clachan. Bare brick, exposed lights and no flats for the actors, yet delicate licks of red paint, gold detailing and ornamental lighting for the audience. We’re led to our seats through backstage – perhaps labouring a little too heavily the point that we’re peeling beneath the opera – past a dead, bleeding, but still breathing Bull.

I have no idea what happens in Carmen – I don’t know a thing about opera. You say ‘thrilling performance at Covent Garden’, I think man with a unicycle and flaming batons outside Boots the chemist. But thankfully this tension seemed to be in play. Michael Longhurst’s production – spare but madly theatrical – satisfyingly excavates the pop culture from the opera. In the ENO season-ticket holders, you could almost hear the Sauvignon curdling. Yes opera is about sex and death. But surely not in such a raw state as this.

In a way I’ve never thought possible, the lack of any real story, quite nicely made way for these character sketches. A business man, a rent boy, a disturbed singer, a troubled teen, a lost mother at first seem like the standard roll-call. But Jack Farthing – a latter-day Carmen as a witty Essex rent boy – and John Light – Escamillio of the square mile with sharp suits and semi-automatic delivery – were enrapturing. Carmen’s high power ejaculation about which it “is only fair to warn people” and Escamillio’s frantic defines of following people had us hooked. Their stories, perhaps linking in meaningful ways for the black ties in the crowd, were for the rest of us just masterfully told single stories.

However, these moments could be hit and miss. Katie West – as Micaëla, for the informed – had an absent unrequited love to battle with, into which she threw herself but which failed to move. And I never fully bought into Sharon Small – as ‘The Singer’.

A haunting chorus, with snippets from the opera, were for me were the only links. And eventually lost souls stumbling on the ‘chocolate box opera house’ Carmen, the curious lifestyles of opera singers, personal technology and ‘Europe’ were the playwright’s inspirations. I’m not sure all these were hit, but his skill in producing entirely entertaining and mostly crisp lives was an entertaining watch. Even if the Bizet did go straight down the bidet.
Box Office: 020 7359 4404  to 23 May

raing:  four   4 Meece Rating
Rating: four


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