Review: Oklahoma!, Young Vic, ★★★★☆

by Jim Keaveney

Arifa Akbar recently wrote that “theatre reviewing is by its nature only ever an overnight response” – the risk being that as we mull over what we have seen, we risk jumping to conclusions; our response to some productions changing as we consider and reconsider them in the days that follow.

The London transfer of this Tony Award winning revival of Oklahoma!, reimagined by Daniel Fish, is one of those productions that could suffer from the snap reaction that theatre criticism brings. In the hands of Fish, who co-directs with Jordan Fein, this is no cosy romantic western musical – it is stripped back, sexual and visceral, fully earning the ‘sexy Oklahoma’ tag it gained on Broadway. There’s a lot to think about.

Arthur Darvill and Anoushka Lucas. Photo: Marc Brenner

Adapted from the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs as their first collaboration, the premise of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical remains the same – in fact not a word of the text has been changed. It is 1906 in the town of Claremore in pre-statehood Oklahoma and the local people are preparing for a box social dance. Curly (Arthur Darvill) arrives to ask Laurey (Anoushka Lucas) to go with him to the dance that evening – they tease each other and she refuses his invite, instead going with the family’s farmhand Jud (Patrick Vaill), a strange outsider.

Meanwhile, Will (James Davis) has returned from Kanvas with enough money to win Ado Annie’s (Marisha Wallace) hand in marriage. Ado Annie however is enthralled by Ali Hakim (Stavros Demetraki), a Persian peddler. With two love triangles it is almost a surprise that it is not until now that a production has been staged that examines the sexual and violent undertones – perhaps something to do with Rodgers & Hammerstein’s estate.

Stavros Demetraki and Marisha Wallace. Photo: Marc Brenner

The set design by Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher places the audience almost in the action on three sides, with audience members in the front row sitting on the stage in front of wooden tables covered with slow cookers, hobs and Bud Light. The starkness of the wooden set is increased by Scott Zielinski’s lighting, with the almost dazzling house lights up for most of the performance, but he also creates moments of magic with the lights dropping into a green dreamlike hue as Curly sings about seeing ‘the stars gittin’ blurry’ as he almost embraces with Laurey.

Daniel Kluger completely reimagines the orchestration, dispatching with lush orchestrations and opting for a seven piece band that utilises instruments of the frontier, a banjo, a mandolin, pedal steel and guitars, alongside the more traditional violins, double bass and cello.

Anoushka Lucas. Photo: Marc Brenner
The instrumentation seeps into the narrative with Darvill spending part of his time acting from behind a guitar, much like his performance in Once. Cocksure with a furrowed brow and gyrating hips he is something of a frontier-Elvis, despite looking more like Hank Williams in his white suit.
There is a sensual chemistry between Darvill and Lucas, a kind of sureness to their romance despite their love/hate relationship. Lucas is impressive as Laurey, with a vulnerability under her hard exterior, and she is best when she is singing, managing to completely convey Laurey’s feelings, most notably in Out Of My Dreams.
Arthur Darvill. Photo: Marc Brenner
Jud is a much more human character in Fish’s production; sympathetic and hard to describe as a villain – if anything, Curly is the bully here. There is even a hint his confrontation with Curly that the reason he is an outsider is because of his closeted homosexuality with his infatuation with Laurey is a cover for this. It is extremely well played by Vaill, who has played the role since 2007 in off-Broadway and Broadway casts.
The supporting cast are particularly good. Wallace’s portrayal of Ado Annie is a revelation, imbuing her with such incredible naivety that it makes her inability to say no to her carnal desires all the more hilarious. Demetraki is also excellent, tracking Ali Hakim’s journey from his overconfident leering introduction to his desperation to escape a shotgun wedding. One of the few disappointments is that Lisa Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier success in Cabaret, is a little underutilised. Another is that, at times, the balance between music and vocals can be a little off, with the band overpowering the vocals so that occasionally it can be difficult to catch certain lines.
Arthur Darvill and Patrick Vaill. Photo: Marc Brenner
Though the production has been applauded for its realistic approach, that doesn’t seem correct. Fish may have dispatched with the cosiness but realism isn’t quite what we’re left with. Jud and Curly’s confrontation over Laurey in the smokehouse is initially played in pitch blackness before a close up video of Jud’s face is projected across the wall of the theatre.
Later, when Jud confronts Laurey we are again pitched into darkness, our ears straining to the sounds of a kiss and a belt buckle. The tenseness of the scenes heightened in the darkness. Make no mistake, this isn’t realism – it is an intense examination of human nature and its darkest desires.
Anoushka Lucas andArthur Darvill. Photo: Marc Brenner
Mostly, the changes work, though there are occasional missteps and some that are up for debate. Perhaps the biggest change Fish has made, and the one that is likely to be the most divisive, is to the musical’s end. Gone is the happy ending, replaced with a shocking showdown between the love rivals and a rendition of Oklahoma that feels like it is pleading for reassurance that everything is ‘OK’.

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim