When lowlife carnival barker Billy Bigelow (Declan Bennett) meets sweetly alluring millworker Julie Jordan (Carly Bawden), sparks fly. Married and out of work, Billy attempts a robbery that goes horribly wrong, kills himself out of despair and is returned to earth to make amends with his wife and the daughter he has never seen.
The bleakness of the story is offset by superb songs including If I Loved You, June is Bustin’ Out All Over and the anthemic You’ll Never Walk Alone – the last one delivered as an aching lament by Julie’s cousin Nettie (Joanna Riding).
The stage is a huge revolving disc seemingly cut from the wooden ramp tilted at an angle around it and on which choreographer Drew McOnie devises muscular, dynamic dances that reflect the working lives of the community.
There are a few anomalies – it is difficult to imagine a “clambake” anywhere north (or even south) of Watford and Billy’s wish that his unborn child might become “President of the United States” is greeted with laughter.
Yet the uplifting performances keep us attentive.
Bawden’s Julie is clear-voiced throughout and heartbreaking in her grief, Riding (who played Julie at the National Theatre in 1992) dominates as Nettie, and Christina Modestou and John Pfumojena are a delight as unlikely but loving couple Carrie and Enoch.
Tough but rewarding.
Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park until September 25, tickets 0333 400 3562