From the doom-laden opening chords which segue smoothly into the show’s irresistible opening number to the sight of Fagin walking off into the sunrise in search of a new life Laurence Connor’s touring production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! doesn’t put a foot wrong. It has energy, humour, style and emotion and confirms that Bart’s show, over fifty years after it was first produced, is a classic piece of music theatre, full of great tunes and witty lyrics.
“Food, Glorious Food” shows many of the strengths of the show: atmospheric lighting designed by Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s expressive choreography, which mixes classic Cockney tropes with more contemporary moves, superb singing and musicianship. Every number is well staged: “One Boy for Sale” on a bare stage with snow falling in the background; “Consider Yourself” becomes a welcome to London and a paean to its people’s generous spirit; “Oom-pah-pah” in a pub full of raucous drunks doesn’t hide the sexual drives at its core. Totie Driver and Adrian Vaux’s design combines particularly well with the lighting during the chase scenes to give a picture of terrifying alleyways and the bustle of a great city.
Bart’s musical contains none of the anti-semitism which disfigures the novel (and which is horribly present in Alec Guinness’ portrayal of Fagin in the 1948 David Lean film). Neil Morrissey’s Fagin comes out with a few Jewish consonants early on but his Jewishness is not stressed. An expert purveyor of male weakness, Morrissey plays Fagin not as the terrifying figure of the novel but a charming if messy villain in danger of developing a heart and, just possibly, about to change his life. The comic exchanges with Iain Fletcher’s brutal Bill Sikes and his monologue as he looks through his jewel box are wittily done. Samantha Banks’ Nancy has a lovely voice and delivers her numbers with great power; her inability to leave the man who will kill her and her growing realisation that someone else needs her are moving. The Oliver we saw (there are four of them), Sebastian Croft, acts and sings beautifully. Connor’s direction ensures that minor characters such as the Sowerberries (C J Johnson and David Langham) and Widow Corney (Claire Machin) and Mr. Bumble (Jack Edwards) are vivid and memorable. The children all perform brilliantly.
Of course, the musical misses much of Dickens’ anger at the plight of the poor, but the opening scenes in the workhouse and the threat of violence from Bill Sikes and others will leave no spectator in any doubt about the nature of the society being portrayed. This is a family show, of course, and those wondering whether to take younger children may like to know that there is some physical sexual suggestiveness in a couple of the numbers (but it went over my eight-year-old’s head) and that the killing of Nancy, whilst shocking, is mitigated by the fact that one can’t see her body as Sikes clubs her.
This is a great evening in the theatre and it makes one long for someone enterprising to try staging some of Bart’s other work, such as Maggie May.