Turning Carrie into a musical in the late 1980s must have seemed as macabre an idea as inviting the school scapegoat to the prom, then drenching her in pig's blood. Sure, Sondheim proved with Sweeney Todd a decade earlier that horror could be set to music and scare the audience shitless in the process, but it’s one thing to write songs about pies filled with human meat, quite another to do it for a story that starts with Carrie White having her first period in the shower and ends with her murdering her mum with the entire contents of the kitchen knife draw.
The show’s 1988 Stratford try-out – scripted by Lawrence D. Cohen (who also adapted Stephen King’s book for Brian de Palma’s brilliant 1976 movie) with a score by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford of Fame fame – was staged, believe it or not, by the Royal Shakespeare company and it sounds like the sort of car-crash production you wished you had been there to brag about. Broadway veteran Barbara Cook was nearly decapitated by the scenery, apparently, and the fake blood played havoc with Linzi Hateley aka Carrie’s microphone. The latter went with the show to Broadway but Cook bowed out, leaving Betty Buckley – who was the gym teacher in the film version, trivia fans – to fill the bat-shit crazy shoes of Carrie’s mum.
Whoever thought it was a good idea to plough $8 million into the Broadway production was left with blood on their face. Thanks to bemused audiences and the most scathing reviews since Margaret White took one look at Carrie in her hand-sewn prom dress in the movie and declared ‘They’re all gonna laugh at you’, it lasted for a couple of weeks of previews and only five performances.
But you can’t keep a telekinetic girl in the grave for long and in recent times Carrie The Musical has been resurrected and re-imagined off-Broadway (in Christopher Street’s legendary Lucille Lortel Theatre no less), in Los Angeles and around the globe. She’s finally getting her London premiere at the Southwark Playhouse, a fringe venue that’s perfect for this fringiest of shows.
You couldn’t hope for a gutsier production but despite the revisions it remains a curious beast. The score is an uneasy mix of bouncy pop (if the Grease 2 soundtrack had a collection of B-sides they’d all be on it) and traditional belters, with Margaret’s When There’s No-One being the only stand-out number - and boy does Kim Criswell, an accomplished performer who hails from the States and works on both sides of the pond, sing it well. But her Margaret White, due I suspect to the way the role was rewritten for the stage, is more melancholy than crazy and she’s so loving towards her daughter that, however misguided her religious fervor may be, her flashes of rage make little sense.
There’s also too much focus on the kids (all of whom are too old to be at school and some of whom look old enough to be teachers) and not enough on Carrie herself, although Evelyn Hoskins is terrific in every scene she has - as wounded as Sissy Spacek was in the original film and suitably less knowing than Chloe Grace Moretz was in the recent remake. When she sings it seems to be coming from the very depths of her troubled soul.
I wish director and choreographer Gary Lloyd had chosen to have more fun with the show, since it’s too daft an idea to be played seriously. It’s too much Glee and not enough Gothic and so low on camp that the audience I saw it with, pent-up with the expectation of something sillier, screamed with laughter when Criswell yelled out ‘Witch!’ like some deranged opera diva.
Still, it’s a show worth seeing for sheer curiosity value and, tonal niggles aside, the staging is quite something. You’re in the heart of the gory action, with creepy sound effects and disturbing whispers pumped through speakers that are just above or behind your ears, and when the blood comes down those on the front row might wish they’d brought raincoats.
The cast give it their all and the prom carnage is ingeniously done. It must have proved too tricky to recreate the death-by-knives scene on stage so Margaret’s demise is done the way it was in the book, but Carrie The Musical doesn’t shy away from the bloodiness of its subject matter. It starts with menstruation and ends with more of the red stuff on stage than you get at the end of Macbeth. It’s a bold show that could never be accused of playing it safe. ‘Carrie White Eats Shit’ is daubed on the walls as you enter the auditorium but, for all its flaws, Carrie The Musical most certainly doesn’t.
Carrie The Musical is at the Southwark Playhouse
until May 30th. For tickets call 020 7407 0234.
WORDS BY SIMON BUTTON
PHOTOS BY CLAIRE BILYARD