Carmen 1808 (Union Theatre)

Carmen 1808 (Union Theatre, until March 10th 2018)

A lively and energetic reimagining of one of the world’s most famous operas bursts onto the small stage at the Union Theatre to offer one of the most exciting and imaginative productions to be seen yet at the London venue.

The opening of the thrilling Carmen 1808 – which uses Bizet’s original music and is inspired by Prosper Merrimee’s  novella – is so electrifying that it takes the breath away, not least as you wonder how on earth the vibrant 17-strong cast can even begin to fit into such a tiny space. Teddy Clements has arranged all the music to make it hugely accessible without losing a grain of integrity of the original.

Director/adaptor Phil Willmott has moved the action from 1820 Seville and its world of soldiers, gypsy girls and matadors to Madrid 1808 and particularly to Napoleon’s oppression of the Spanish people during the Peninsular War.

One of the haunting final scenes in the production reflects a chilling work by artist Francisco Goya of a young man facing a firing squad (“El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid”) and indeed this sets the dramatic tone for the whole production, which also touches on the present day fight for Catalan Independence.

This one vision creates a work of creative genius, with a sultry Carmen becoming a spy, an idealistic student is a hero of the resistance, and the army represented by just two actors. Goya himself makes an appearance too (sturdy and super work by Alexander Barria) serving as a journalistic narrator while he paints his dark masterpiece.

The singing is more West End musicals than it is opera, but this is no more irritating than Oscar Hammerstein’s clever 1940s African-American take on the story Carmen Jones. Most of the cast are making London or professional debuts, and every single member has a chance to show off their considerable talent in this terrific ensemble piece.

Rachel Lea-Gray  is a gloriously seductive Carmen,  a Madrileña Mata Hari effortlessly seducing the two soldiers at the heart of the story – Maximilian Marston’s noble smouldering Captain Velarde (also trying to evade the attentions of a lovelorn Josephina, a beautiful performance by Charlotte Haines) and the down to earth Corporal Luis, played by Thomas Mitchells with aplomb.

Blair Gibson is also captivating as the young student leader of the underground resistance with a strong voice to match a solid performance. Okay, student revolutionaries are nothing new in contemporary musicals, but this is an idea that is developed well by the creative team.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust deserve extra credit for their multi-level set design as do Penn O’Gara’s striking costumes, contributing still further to lifting this way beyond normal expectations for an off-West End show.

The icing on an already sumptuous cake is the remarkable choreography by Adam Haigh. It would be outstanding and showstopping in a major theatre with loads of space to work in, but here it is remarkable and awe-inspiring, whether in the frenzied big numbers (such as the gypsy dance) or the slower dances.

Carmen 1808 is all that is great about theatre in just 90 minutes running time – imaginative, heart-stopping, and spectacularly creative.

David Guest

Picture, Scott Rylander