Review: Carmen 1808

4 star rating
Spanish students take on the invading French in Phil Willmott's musical theatre reworking of Bizet's opera, offering much to revel in even if the denouement seems emotionally vacuous.
Carmen 1808 at the Union Theatre

Image: Union Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 10 March 2018

Based on the Libretto by Ludovic Halévy & Henri Meilhac and the original novel by Prosper Mérimée; adapted by Phil Willmott

Based on the Opera Score by George Bizet, arranged by Teddy Clements

Phil Willmott

Phil Willmott


Carmen (A Gypsy Spy) - Rachel Lea-Gray

Captain Velarde - Maximilian Marston

Francisco Goya (A Painter) - Alexander Barria

Amalia (A Street Girl and Carmen's Friend) - Ellie Ann Lowe

Javier Rizal (Leader of the Resistance) - Blair Gibson

Josephina (A young Noblewoman) - Charlotte Haines

Corporal Luis - Thomas Mitchells

Manuela (A Cigarette Girl and Carmen's friend) - Jodie Beth Meyer

Factory Workers, Gypsies, Street Walkers, Soldiers & The French:

Mateo - Chris Britton

Maria - Bronia Pearce

Isabella - Jasmine Bradford

Carlos- Harry Powell

Sofia - Samantha Richards

Constanza - Kerry Way

Salvador - Pantelakis Christou

Fernando- Brett Sinclair

Vicente - Jack Malin


Gypsy freedom-fighter, Carmen, is adept at seducing low-ranking enemy soldiers to learn military secrets during Napoleon's invasion of Spain and relaying them to the student resistance.

She takes great pride in never falling in love herself but as she attempts to trick an officer, revolution, treachery and violence grip the city and they are plunged into a passionate, destructive romance.

Set against a back drop of Spain's Peninsular War with the French this Carmen is a celebration of revolutionary fervour, rebellion on the Spanish streets and the spirit of those who fight for independence.

The deeply troubled painter Francesco Goya, battling black depression and the loss of his hearing, wanders amidst student rebels, gypsy resistance fighters, invaders and deserters - and the events which so dramatically skewered his view of Madrid.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Wednesday 14 February 2018
Review star rating image for 3 stars

When Spain's nobility capitulate to Napoleon and his dastardly French army, it's left to the fervent Spanish students to resist the intruder "frogs" - isn't that usually the case, you might well think.

Well, if not students, it's often ordinary folks who have to step in to the breach at such times.

Even though the students here hate the idle nobility, they are nonetheless enlisted to "help get Spain back on its feet".

Or, to put it another way, to get the upper class back into their usual position of authority and power, perhaps.

Rachel Lea-Gray as Carmen - photo by Scott Rylander

Rachel Lea-Gray as Carmen - photo by Scott Rylander

In the suffocating ("hot as hell") atmosphere of Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the students are abetted in their endeavours by a young gypsy, Carmen, who uses her manipulative powers of persuasion to gain information about enemy plans by offering her 'special services' to the weary and unwary French grunts.

And one glance at Ms Lea-Gray's alluring character here, tells you that she's pretty efficient in the seduction department and, thus a pretty successful spy!

This production is the second in a three part series of shows entitled Essential Classics from the Phil Willmott Company - the previous show in this current season was Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House and the one following Carmen will be Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (casting for which has just been announced).

The multi-talented, ever-industrious and seemingly inexhaustible Phil Willmott is once again at the directorial helm, and sets this version of Bizet's much-loved opera in the guise of musical theatre.

This is not the Carmen you may know and love, but Bizet's ever-popular tunes are much in evidence in this reworking which transfers the action from the 1820s to 1808 using as inspiration this painting by Goya (completed in 1814) which features in the denouement of the piece ...

El Tres de Mayo by Goya -  image used in Carmen 1808

Image: El Tres de Mayo by Francisco de Goya

The hazy, lazy atmosphere we find at the start of the show, suddenly explodes like a cannon going off into a riot of dancing and singing as the energetic students and girls from the tobacco factory dance and sing their hearts out in exemplary fashion.

It's in these scenes with the entire company where we find Bizet's luscious 'hit tunes' (as Mr Willmott describes them) breaking through beautifully and none the worse for wear, and capturing something akin to the approach in musicals such as Les Misérables, for example.

With a large, able cast dancing indefatigably in a relatively small space, there's always the danger of a production being overpowered by sheer weight of numbers, but Mr Willmott and choreographer Adam Haigh manage to contain the action effectively, even if we are left with a sense that these student types fall into a dance routine at the drop of a sombrero cordobés.

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust's multi-level set that we saw in Heartbreak House provides the overall framework, niftily and economically recycling their former design, but effectively stating an appropriate environment.

Maybe I'm getting jaded or just plain cynical, but the ending here didn't really have what I assumed to be the desired effect - ie, that I would be moved by the brutal tragedy of events.

However, I'm afraid it rather washed over me, failing to make any penetrating dent in my emotional armoury, perhaps because of the convivial, almost joyous dancing and singing that had gone before, but something certainly seems oddly missing, lending a vacuous close to an event that should have been agonisingly heartbreaking.

In every other respect, there's much to admire, if not revel in, with Bizet's music given top-notch treatment in the singing department with rousing and spirited whole ensemble numbers well-contrasted with more nuanced and haunting solo songs.

Though this musical theatre translation of Bizet's opera won't be to everyone's taste, I suspect, it's got a big, polished musical feel to it with worthy ambitions and is certainly well-worth seeing.

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