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Carrie the Musical — Review

Carrie the Musical stands out as one of the most famous and expensive failures in musical theatre history. More than that, its history of performance has been plagued by constant rewrites, cast resignations, and onstage malfunctions. With that all in mind, I arrived at the Buchanan Lecture Theatre on Sunday 24 March with trepidation: if Broadway could never manage it, what hope did the University of St Andrews Musical Theatre Society have?

Carrie’s greatest merit lies in its formidable cast. I would name Emily Speed as Margaret White as the star of the show, whose multiple two-hander scenes and duets with Eleanor White as Carrie were remarkable. Speed’s portrayal of Carrie’s mother, as both suppressed and suppressor, elevated the role from controlling to truly terrifying. Speed even made Margaret sympathetic, masterly combining abuse, real love and serious concern in her treatment of Carrie, and devoutness and trauma in her motivations. This all speaks to Speed’s deeply considered approach to characterisation, which I wholly applaud. Her fantastic harmonisations with White, alongside the two actresses’ uncanny likenesses, made their scenes soar high above the rest of the show.

Other cast stand-outs include Johnathan Stock as Tommy Ross. For a character that could easily be a shallow jock, Stock imbued Tommy with a gentleness which made his romance with Sue and his kindness towards Carrie all the more compelling. Cameron Collier as George took the outdated stock character of the closeted gay friend and made him the funniest character on-stage. Heather Tiernan as Mr Stephens, too, had fantastic comedic timing and stood out despite her very few scenes. Taylor Colbeth as Chris Hargensen was a showstopper, raising the bar for the other cast members, especially during the musical numbers. Her on-stage commitment to choreography, intentional physicality and strong line delivery made Chris a forbidding villain and, more than that, the most riveting member of the school scenes at most times.

I would also draw attention to the brilliant band, with a special mention to Neve Green, who played the cello with such flair and intensity that my eyes kept being drawn back to her. Moreover, the creative decision to have the musicians dress in prom outfits shows an intelligent attention to detail.

The lighting, done by Lucy Turner, made good use of the lecture-hall space despite its limitations. The four downstage robe lights created harsh colours and shadows, which had a spectacular visual effect when characters were close to the floor. The use of candles in the White household were also effective, and matched the religious décor of the setting. Lighting remained the strongest visual aspect of the show.

Carrie, however, faltered in its ability to fully immerse its audience. On-stage accidents, such as repeatedly missed sound cues and actors failing to stand on their spotlight marks, made the audience cringe with second-hand embarrassment. The most unforgivable of these accidents was in the prom scene, when the blood was dumped on Carrie, and it all went down her back. If there’s anything to get right in Carrie, it’s this inciting act! It ultimately harmed the dramatic potential of the show’s most important scene. These mistakes overall situated this piece as a work of nonprofessional theatre.

While I can appreciate that this musical was working with a shoestring budget, the lack of attention to props and costumes also blemished the play. The comically large knife that Margaret tries to use to kill Carrie turned a painful moment of familial betrayal into slapstick. The costumes seemed entirely unconsidered, as if the cast had been told to look in the back of their wardrobes for prom and gym class outfits. Costume could have been used to locate the play in time, either in the novel’s 1970s setting, or in the contemporary 2020s. It could have been used to tell the audience more about the characters. It could have been used to just make the play’s visual aspect more pleasing. Instead, its randomness only made the play look gauche. The lighting and stage settings proved a lot could be done with very little: costumes and props proved that very little could be done with very little too.

Overall, Carrie the Musical was at its best when its cast and crew were wholly committing to their roles. It faltered only where less effort was put in, which is a shame, because its mistakes were so easily fixable. It was ultimately a good run of the show, albeit with great room for improvement. A massive well-done to staging a play that has historically been unstageable, though.

Image by University of St Andrews Musical Theatre Society

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