In The Heights came from New York with Tonys attached, this year's offering has, to say the least, more of a checkered past: Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen's Carrie has gone down in history as one of the biggest-ever musical flops. Despite a Stratford-upon-Avon run plagued by cast accidents (the blood short-circuited the radio mics, electrocuting them) it went straight to Broadway. The humiliation suffered there meant the performance rights were withdrawn for decades. So this heavily rewritten version, seen off-Broadway in 2012, is the first time it's ever been seen in London.
Stephen King's debut horror novel is certainly not the most obvious choice to get the song-and-dance treatment. Carrie White (Evelyn Hoskins) has long been her high school's favourite punching bag. Getting her first period at the age of 17 in the school showers, and not having been taught what it means, is another massive public humiliation. But it also heralds her acquiring telekinetic powers, because vaginas are terrifying and mysterious like that.
Standing on its own, Carrie as a musical is no classic, but the version we have now certainly isn't deserving of the notoriety the original gained. In fact it starts very well - the first half-hour or so has a lot of strong numbers, including the title song which Hoskins belts out impressively. On the basis of the first five songs they might have even sold me a soundtrack but unfortunately from then on we're firmly in ballad territory - all decent enough in their own right but taken all together it becomes a monotonous collection of competent but samey musical theatre standards.
Not that this means Gary Lloyd's production is any less impressive: US import Kim Criswell is suitably demented as Carrie's religious nut-job mother, while Jodie Jacobs is a likeable but misguided figure as the PE teacher Miss Gardner. The supporting cast of jocks and mean girls form an energetic (if sometimes a bit irritatingly so) chorus; Cohen's script, mainly through the narration of survivor Sue Snell (Sarah McNicholas,) makes an attempt to show them as just kids whose bullying is a cruel survival technique, but for the most part the show revels in their grisly ends, particularly that of mean queen Chris (Gabriella Williams.) Greg Miller-Burns is a sweetly gormless Tommy Ross, if a bit of an overdressed one (his T-shirt's not even particularly tight but he still bulges out of it. Given the makeup of tonight's audience, I think Lloyd might have misjudged what kind of flesh they want to see when he had a couple of the girls get their norks out.)
While the material is half-decent and the production excellent, anyone who might have been attracted to Carrie for its potential kitsch value won't be disappointed either - it's inevitable in a show that requires its star to stare angrily at people and cause them to levitate. It remains a completely bonkers idea for a musical, and never quite convinces it was worth the risk in the way American Psycho did. But it entertains throughout even if the songs themselves are disappointing: And the old joke about coming out of the theatre humming the set feels appropriate here as well, as Tim McQuillen-Wright's set pulls of a last-minute coup de théâtre that feels particularly impressive in the intimate space.
Carrie by Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King, is booking until the 30th of May at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.