The Curve's last artistic director Paul Kerryson is back at the venue for Lionel Bart's evergreen musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, returning to helm what became his trademark Christmas extravaganza. The current artistic director Nikolai Foster will doubtless be pleased to have him back, as he delivers the goods yet again.
Kerryson is terrific at spectacle, and there's plenty of that in this big, lavish production. No expense has been spared on set, cast and orchestra, and it shows. Besides a well-drilled chorus of boisterous boys, there are twenty performers on stage and another eleven in the pit, making a huge difference to the impact and impressiveness of the event.
Kerryson marshals them effectively and his choreographer Andrew Wright makes dynamic use both of the numbers and of the individuals' talents – there's tumbling, acrobatics and circus skills in there alongside the energetic dancing and full-throated ensemble singing. Matt Kinley's set design is cleverly adaptable to revolve, unpack and open up to provide interiors and exteriors with equal dexterity and the different spaces are rarely anything other than heaving with activity.
Occasionally the frenetic pace is allowed to drown out some of Bart's tenderest and most poignant moments, although the climax of Nancy's powerful solo, 'As Long As He Needs Me', gets exactly the stillness and drama it deserves. In the hands of Cat Simmons, Nancy tugs inexorably at the heartstrings in one of the evening's warmest performances. Meanwhile, press night's Oliver (Albert Hart) and Artful Dodger (Kwame Kandekore) show they've earned their places on the Curve stage, leading a gang of eager youngsters with aplomb.
Oliver Boot gives a menacing, if slightly sidelined, Bill Sikes, almost speaking his way through his one song and losing some of Bart's musical ingenuity along the way, but he's terrifying enough when he needs to be and his final confrontation with Nancy is genuinely shocking. Peter Polycarpou also feels a little in the background as a scheming, slithery Fagin. His iconic songs – 'You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two' and 'Reviewing The Situation' – are capably delivered but what's missing is the rascally lovability that redeems Fagin from mere seediness.
One of the real triumphs of this production is its band, led by musical director Ben Atkinson. The pacing may be decidedly on the quick side, but the sound and musicality of his players is impeccable, although the mix could stand some adjustment to make the voices a little clearer at times. There's nothing like a live band to generate excitement and texture, and Atkinson's ensemble do both superbly.
Bruno Poet's haunting lighting and takis's costumes add to the imposing atmosphere, whether it's Fagin's candlelit lodgings or a foggy London Bridge at midnight, and Kerryson's uncanny ability to leave striking images in the mind of the audience pays off once more. Curve have scored another Christmas hit.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
Oliver! runs at Curve, Leicester, until 23 January