OKLAHOMA! | London, Young Vic

The breathtaking, deeply sinister production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) that opened on Broadway in 2019 (with eight Tony Award nominations) has transferred to the intimate rectangle of the Young Vic. Audience are seated with the actors, around the edges of what feels like a community hall, decked out floor to ceiling in birch wood, with a “fringe on the top” of tacky plastic bunting, and dozens of gun racks along the walls.

Where the original calls for a twenty-eight piece orchestra, here we have an on-stage skiffle band of just seven musicians, including pedal steel guitar (JP Ruggieri). With the exception of a few key moments (including the famous “dream ballet”), we all remain under the same gym hall strip lighting (Scott Zielinski) throughout, the audience just as visible as the actors.

The effect of this major redesign (Laura Jellinek, Grace Laubacher) and reorchestration (Daniel Kluger) is to ground the audience firmly in the same small-town, turn-of-the century community, and to make us equally complicit in the psychological bullying, and ultimately, murder, that takes place there. When they sing the title track in Act II, it’s a joyless roar: aggressive and territorial.

Of course, all the charm and humour of the original writing remains. “I Cain’t Say No”, with a rock-star, mic-in-hand finale, brings the house down, while “People Will Say We’re in Love” is genuinely romantic. This is testament to Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize winning genius: there is so much beauty, but there is something deeply rotten at the core.

Playing 27 April – 25 June 2022 at the Young Vic Theatre.

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