BWW Reviews: CARMEN, Soho Theatre, August 13 2015

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In the heat of one of those long-forgotten Central American wars, soldiers sit and sweat, the time dragging, waiting for the girls from the cigarette factory come out for a smoke and pout. The smokiest, poutiest, sexiest is Carmen, a woman who takes pleasure where she finds it and to hell with the consequences. When brooding, scowling Jose falls for her (and does a one-month stretch in prison to get Carmen off a charge), he wants more than flirting, more even than sex - he wants to possess Carmen, to destroy her spirit, the very thing that drives his obsession. So, when the handsome, decent, naive toreador Escamillo catches her eye in the bar, well, the cards' prediction of Carmen's fate begins to play out in real life.

Director Robin Norton-Hale's English libretto pares back perhaps the world's most famous opera, losing the cigars-rolling-on-cafe-au-lait-thighs and the boiling gypsy blood tropes in favour of the psychological drama of Jose and Carmen. He is no amoral monster - he knows what he should do and even tries to be kind to his mother - but he's bewitched, weak and violent. She is no ingenue - she knows the danger, and arms herself with a gun at times - but she fails to find a safe place when lover becomes murderer. As Norton-Hale points out in the programme, the woman killed by a male partner is a tragedy unconfined by time or place - it's the appalling fate of two British women every week, even today.

This reconceptualising of Carmen works because the performances are superb, amongst the best this award-winning company have presented over the last five years. Lilly Papaioannou's Carmen swaggers amongst the men and the women, commanding the space, a captivating, irresistible presence - she really is both a force of nature and yet vulnerable just at the moment she needs forego the chutzpah in favour of flight. There's a touch of Kate Moss in Papaioannou's look that's enhanced by Alex Papachristou's beautifully judged costumes, but she's not just eye candy, she can really sing and, in this production just as importantly, she can really act.

Mike Bracegirdle (Jose) could well be muscled off the stage by Papaioannou's charisma, but he's not, coming into his own in the second act as Jose's lust curdles into jealousy. There's fine support work too from the company, amongst whom Marc Callahan excels (nailing the Toreador's Song), and Roisin Walsh comes over a bit "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" in her big aria - but that's no bad thing.

Of course, boutique operas like this get by without a chorus nor an orchestra, but Berrak Dyer's four piece do some fantastic work, bringing all those familiar tunes to us and allowing the singers full rein to let the passions flow. I'll happily swap the fullness of strings, woodwind, brass and pecussion sections for the thrill of seeing the whites of the singers's and musicians' eyes and the real sense of being there, amongst them.

Having left the King's Head (where an earlier version of Carmen was a rare letdown amongst so many delights) OperaUpClose can be confident that their formula works on a return to Dean Street where they will attract many of their loyal Upper Street following and a whole new audience too. They, like me, wouldn't miss a show like this for the world!

OperaUpClose's Carmen continues at Soho Theatre until 19 September.

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From This Author Gary Naylor