Hopes are high for Cameron Mackintosh's revival of Lionel Bart's classic musical Oliver! as it arrives on the back of the hit talent show I'd Do Anything, has choreography by the wonderful Matthew Bourne and features some iconic songs which fill you with nostalgia the minute you hear the opening bars.
The West End production was sold to the public as Nancy's show as they chose Blackpool's Jodie Prenger to play the buxom wench with the heart of gold. Here, we have Samantha Barks who may have come third - but watching her belt out the big numbers in Oliver! - one can see why she has just been cast in the new Les Miserables movie as she is simply mesmerising to watch.
She is ably matched by a chillingly good Iain Fletcher as Bill Sykes as he is suitably rugged and oozes menace at every turn. Even though the role requires him to play it slightly panto - he resists and delivers a rich and nuanced performance. His singing is one dimensional though as he does a 'Miriam Margolyes' (in Wicked) and speaks his way through "My Name."
Neil Morrissey's Fagin has all the mischief and cheek required and he performs well with the children and his body language is incredibly expressive. But the one reference to Bob the Builder reminds you that this an actor playing a role - lifting you out of Dickensian London momentarilty and it slightly cheapens the production. Harry Polden's Oliver is in fine voice and he does the best that he can with an underwritten part but this show is all about the villiains, leaving him slightly overshadowed, as there are far more showy characters jostling for your attention.
The ensemble of children and adults are perfectly cast and they all make the most of Bourne's dynamic dance moves. I would have liked to have seen more dancing and movement as it does bring life to the piece when it becomes slightly lacking in energy, particularly during the first act until "Consider Yourself." Max Greisbach's Artful Dodger leads them brilliantly though, in many a merry dance.
Anthony Ward's costumes are perfect as the contrast between Oliver and co and the fearful rich is beautifully explored. Totie Driver and Adrian Vaux's set design is also highly evocative of the period.
Despite all of this, there is something missing from the piece and it's mainly due to Laurence Connor's direction as the show needs tightening up as many scenes do seem to lead the narrative nowhere and could do with cutting. There seems to be so much loyalty to the original that no-one has realised that some elements simply don't work - the funeral parlour scene - for example simply grinds the piece to a halt.
But when Barks appears on stage, the show shines again. As a rebel rouser during "Oom-Pah-Pah" she is incredibly authentic and has tremendous stage presence. Then just like a chameleon she morphs into the flip side of Nancy - the frightened yet loyal lover of Bill Sykes and her "As Long As He Needs Me" is stunning.
Oliver! is fun and has many memorable moments and although it's not quite the 'glorious' show you long for it to be, Samantha Barks' Nancy is worth the admission price, alone.