Carmen the Gypsy at Reading Rep Theatre review

Reading Rep Theatre present Carmen the Gypsy, a furious, stripped-down musical set in a cage fighting British travelling community. Is it a knock out or a feint? I went to find out.

This week, Reading Rep Theatre present Carmen the Gypsy, their first musical co-production, in collaboration with the Romany Theatre Company, who aim to highlight the culture and experiences of Romany, gypsy and traveller people in the UK.

To do that, they’ve adapted Carmen, the 1845 novel by ‎Prosper Mérimée (not Bizet’s later opera version). It’s the passionate, violent love story of one of literature’s most famous gypsy characters, but this time, instead of a fortune teller in 19th century Spain, Carmen (Candis Nergaard) is at the heart of a modern day British traveller community.

Photo: Ali Wright

She’s a fighter juggling tradition, domesticity and a yearning for independence from her husband Garcia (a menacing Michael Mahony) who deals in drugs, illegal cage fighting and domestic violence. When she falls for Don Jose (Adam Rojko Vega, who balances gentleness and fury), a disgraced soldier and outsider who arrives at their camp, she’s torn between family and freedom.

Photo: Ali Wright

Staging is bare: just a black box theatre, with everything taking place in a stark metallic fight cage. It’s a smart and efficient concept, doubling as both the boxing ring and a coop, from which Carmen cannot leave. While other characters bob and weave around the expanse of the set, the feisty Carmen never comes out of the cage – even when out of the action, she sits hidden in the corner. She’s a woman penned in by tradition, expectation and lack of opportunity.

We see Candis Nergaard fight that frustration with spirit, independence and determination in the role of Carmen. Alternating between tough, playful and vulnerable with Don Jose, she is anguished as she tries to decide whether to break out of the cage.

Photo: Ali Wright

Action is physical and frenetic with fights and movement cleverly choreographed by Chi-san Howard. It plays out like a skilled boxing match – half floats, half stings. While all that speed and aggression makes for a powerful show, some of the passion and tenderness of the romance gets a little lost in Dan Allum’s story, it’s almost too rapid for love to keep up.

Photo: Ali Wright

It’s not without tenderness, however. That rings through clearly from the impressive original music – a mix of lilting Romany-style folk songs, sung in both English and Romany. The cast double up to play guitar, violin and the cajon lending a real travelling band feel. Christina Tedders as Mariah is a stand out with a singing voice full of warm, maternal emotion.

At only just over an hour, and with no interval, Carmen the Gypsy comes at you fast. It’s swift, sharp and furious, like a boxer’s punch. Watching it will shake you and make you question the ending. Go see it. Be knocked out.

Carmen the Gypsy plays until Saturday 1 September, 7.30pm, Reading Rep Theatre at Reading College. (Head to The Kitchen for the box office). £14, buy tickets on the door. Read more.

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