Love From Carmen

Every circus needs a ringmaster. In Chickenshed’s reimagining of Bizet’s opera Carmen, we have three competing ringmasters. One is the heroine Carmen, on the side of the oppressed refugees held in the camp. The others are the oppressors, the Minister and General Z (a word play on Gen Z?), wanting to see an end to the resistance of the refugees.

The director, Cara McInally has skilfully woven Chickenshed’s inclusive ethos into so many aspects of Love From Carmen. As Paul Morrall (Executive Director of Education, Training and Outreach), comments, opera can often be regarded as an elitist enterprise, inaccessible to the ‘ordinary’ person – whatever ‘ordinary’ means. McInally’s interpretation ensures this isn’t the case. She takes the original story of Carmen, a Romany Gypsy, experiencing all the prejudice we still see with the travelling community, and restyles her as a refugee. We’re all too aware of the plight of refugees, being lumped together with economic migrants, illegal immigrants and being ‘othered’.

McInally also treats the music with care, bringing Carmen to a modern audience. Along with Phil Haines, they have taken all the beauty and power of Bizet’s original music and overlayed them with modern lyrics, and a hip-hop style that Lin Manuel Miranda would be proud of! I can’t help but make the comparison to Hamilton, (a compliment in my book), to the point, where I want to rename the piece, Carmilton! The musical directors comment that some of the sounds, rhythms and lyrical delivery could never have been imagined by Bizet as he wrote this piece 150 years ago! This bears testament to both the original composer and the modern re-imaginers that this story is still relevant.

This is an ambitious project. There are 200 of Chickenshed’s community in the cast, ensuring as many people as possible get their moment in the spotlight, and enabling the operatic ‘chorus’ to add a beautiful vocal depth. The payoff of having so many on stage is that, occasionally we struggle to identify the soloists, who have often finished their line before we see who has sung. The sound balance was also favouring the soundtrack at times, rather than the lyrics, which of course, in the hip-hop style, are vital to hear.

Act 2, in particular, is very striking. The tension is skilfully built by the directorial choices and by the cast. Not only are we watching the oppression of the refugees, we are also watching the passions of a love quartet play out, to what can only be a tragic conclusion. That conclusion is dealt with in beautiful sensitivity. McInally employs a succession of tableau followed by blackout, giving the audience enough information, without being a graphic depiction, but at the same time, not losing one moment of dramatic impact.

A particular mention must be made of the circus skills in this production. Various cast members have been trained under the careful direction of Cerys Lambert and Balthazar Magloire-Oliver. These skills bring a great energy to the piece – but then energy is evident in so many aspects of this production.

Back to the inclusive ethos. I have long been aware of Chickenshed, but to see it in action is truly a moving experience. We are watching all of life included in this performance. There are those with various disabilities, there are those who are neurodivergent, there are those with learning differences, there are those who are disenfranchised from education or communities. All of them are offered a chance of education, a chance to shine in the spotlight. It is a beautiful reminder of the rainbow of diversity in the world – and all are welcome.

The final tableau when the whole cast is present is a particularly moving moment. There is emotion carried on every face of every cast member, as they react to the tragic conclusion of the piece. Chickenshed can be rightly proud of what they have achieved over the last 50 years and will hopefully go on to achieve more.

This show was reviewed on the 7th March 2024 and runs at the Chickenshed Theatre until the 23rd March 2024.  Tickets available here: Love From Carmen - Chickenshed

Review written by Ian Worsfold

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