“Oliver!” is another of those shows that’s been with me since I was a kid, although mainly in the film version, until 10th November 1977 when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle insisted I accompanied her to Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-West End production at the New Theatre Oxford starring Roy Hudd as Fagin. I remember him being pretty good in a funny, avuncular way. Looking over that old cast list, not many names stand out as being active today, although we did enjoy the performance of Marilyn Cutts, who played the Sowerberrys’ daughter Charlotte, in High Society last year. The late Michael Attwell was Bill Sikes, Mr Sowerberry was played by Graham Hamilton (Equity president 2008-2010); and I also remember Robert Bridges and Joan Turner being a formidable Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, alas neither of them are with us anymore. Many years later in 2009, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see the Rowan Atkinson version at Drury Lane, primarily because we had all fallen in love with The Nation’s Nancy, Jodie Prenger. For Daniel Evans’ new production at the Crucible Theatre we were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler William, who beat us all in terms of history with this show, having seen the original 1960 production in London, when he was but a mere trainee footman.
This show comes as a worthy successor to the previous fin d’année spectaculars we’ve seen at the Crucible, last year’s My Fair Lady and 2011’s Company. One of the most enjoyable aspects of My Fair Lady was Alistair David’s superb group choreography and once again his skill at filling the Crucible stage with a huge ensemble of cavorting street traders and urchins is used to magnificent effect. The big feel-good numbers work incredibly well, especially “Consider Yourself”, led by a fantastically confident Dodger (Jack Armstrong in our performance) and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which allows the character of Nancy to shine like the happy carefree girl she ought to be. Oliver! is of course, one of the country’s (maybe the world’s?) favourite shows and every production seems to run and run; it’s as though we the public can’t get enough of it. But, like Chicago, I do have some reservations about the show as a whole. For me, the first act is almost entirely scene-setting and episodic, the pace and structure slightly ploddy. You go from the workhouse, to the undertakers, to Fagin’s den, but I never get a sense of genuine plot development. That’s not a criticism of this production – I blame Lionel Bart. The second act, however, feels completely different. The story really takes over and each scene or song seems to grow organically out of the scene before.
What makes this production stand out from the previous two I have seen, is the way it presents the genuine hardship and violence of the Oliver Twist story, and refrains from straying into loveable caricature. Sometimes I think Fagin can be portrayed like that – a villain, yes, but more sinned against than sinning, and with a heart of gold. Ron Moody, Roy Hudd, Rowan Atkinson are all thoroughly loveable performers. Tom Edden’s Fagin is very different from that, a very realistic creation; a manipulative, wheedling, sinister creature whose interest is pure self. You sense any affection he shows for the boys is just for profit, and his heart is made of stone. Mr Edden’s amazing ability for physical comedy, as shown supreme in One Man Two Guvnors, is still evident in this production but turned down a little to create a Fagin devoid of caricature. The highlight of Mr Edden’s performance is his performance of Reviewing the Situation; a showstopper combining comedy and egoism in equal measure.
But the most hard-hitting realistic presentation comes in the form of Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy, the tragedy victim supreme, singing a song of love and loyalty about Bill Sikes whilst still wiping the blood away from her mouth where he has socked her one. There’s nothing sentimental or sympathetic about this relationship; and when he finally murders her (sorry if that spoils it for you) it’s simply the inevitable outcome of domestic violence – not so much a horrific shock, more a blessed relief. Miss Gallivan gives a stunning performance (two in fact) of As Long As He Needs Me which absolutely raises the roof, and which contrasts beautifully with her enjoyably light-hearted Oom-Pah-Pah. Ben Richards’ Bill Sikes is a terrifyingly dark demon; quietly vicious, intimidatingly overbearing, totally pathological. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr Richards on stage before, and I understand this is something of an unusual role for him. Well, he’s very convincing!
There are a couple of excellent partnerships – David Phipps-Davis and Rebecca Lock make a wonderfully squabbling Bumble and Corney, and their disintegrating relationship in Act Two is extremely funny to watch. They are both in very fine voice and sing “Oliver” with suitable vindictiveness. We loved the selfish and insensitive way Miss Lock sat on the recently deceased Old Sally; just one sit-down speaks volumes about the character. Equally fun are Chris Vincent and Liza Sadovy (brilliant in Alice in Wonderland a couple of years ago) as the ghoulish Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Mr Vincent in particular conveying a really creepy demeanour, with a pallid face that looks like it’s never been within a mile of a vein. Their lovey-dovey routine provides a briliant comic juxtaposition with their ghostly otherworldliness. Andrew Bryant is an amusingly phlegmatic scouser Noah Claypole, and Bob Harms (superb in the Menier’s Pippin) is a cynically dour Dr Grimwig. The ensemble, who are bright and energetic and revel in inhabiting their various characters, include A Chorus Line’s Georgie Ashford and Barnum’s James O’Connell, both of whom are surely destined for Much Greater Things.
But Oliver! wouldn’t be Oliver! without a pure, vulnerable Oliver, and we certainly had one of these in the form of Jack Skilbeck-Dunn. Not knowing that asking for more was asking for trouble, and too honest to pick a pocket perfectly, he is the embodiment of innocence and sings like a dream. The whole staging of “Who Will Buy”, with his clear, optimistic voice and the wonderful accompaniment of the street traders, was sheer theatrical magic. The other workhouse and gang children are all incredibly gifted and blend seamlessly with the adult cast members, which must be an amazing feat of both rehearsal and performance. I don’t know if we saw the Red Team or the Blue Team, but the tall chap who played Charlie was full of attitude, and the two smallest boys in Fagin’s gang, dancing arm in arm, had us all in hysterics – hats off to you lads!
This is a really enjoyable production, with some great performances, lively choreography, a super band and a timeless story, all blended together with Daniel Evans’ master touch. Another triumph at the Crucible!
PS. Not sure what happened to Bullseye, but Daisy, Lola and Patches (as credited in the programme) must all have been washing their hair that night.
PPS. What do you do when you cast boys in a musical, they suddenly turn into men before your very eyes and their voices break? I think they got round it very nicely in this performance.
PPPS. Apparently it’s only Oliver! (the musical) if you put an exclamation mark after it. Otherwise it’s just a first name. Who knew?