As the UK tour of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! reaches the wonderful Leeds Grand, it seems fitting to be celebrating the show in Charles Dickens’ bicentennial year; even though the show crafted from the great writer’s source novel is more transformation than adaptation!
Oliver! tells of Oliver Twist, an orphan who gets kicked out of his Victorian workhouse and finds his way to London where he is taken in by ragged underworld criminal, Fagin, and sent out to ‘pick a pocket or two’ alongside the Artful Dodger and the other kids in Fagin’s gang, all under the spectre of the sinister Bill Sykes.
But where Dickens aimed to highlight the plight of these pitiful kids, Oliver! turns the tale into lively musical filled with colourful characters and performed with great energy and enthusiasm by a talented company. Particularly impressive are the youngsters in Fagin’s gang, each of which demonstrates great singing and dancing talent.
In fact, performance-wise, there are few weak links, although Daniel Huttlestone’s Artful Dodger proved a little hard to understand at times through his thick mockney accent. Standouts among the adult cast include Samantha Barks, powerful and touching as Bill Sykes’ girl, Nancy, and the fabulously eccentric-looking David Langham as funeral director, Sowerberry.
Early fears that Neil Morrissey’s Fagin would drift too much towards the slapstick prove unfounded and he turns in a terrific performance, especially during the musical numbers; in particular passing the Reviewing the Situation test with flying colours.
On the downside, some of the less familiar songs feel a touch out of place. For example, giving Bill Sykes a number does nothing but turn the character into a pantomime villain; erasing any sinister edge generated during the rest of Iain Fletcher’s edgy performance. This is borne out through the impromptu, good-hearted boos that greet him during the curtain call.
While the main problem with the show is the clashing of jolly musical with dark, seedy themes, this production makes no pretence of great depth, as it moves quickly through the wonderful showstoppers, including Consider Yourself, You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two and I’d do Anything, to name a few, all under the assured orchestral direction of Toby Higgins.
Overall, while Oliver! may not be what Dickens imagined when he sat down to write his classic novel, his words have been transformed into a fabulous show that continues to give audiences of all ages a glorious night out.
Oliver! is at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 8 December 2012. Contact the box office on 0844 8482700, or visit www.leedsgrandtheatre.com. Details of the UK tour can be found at www.oliverthemusical.com.