To say that Omid Djalili has made the part of Fagin his own is the grossest of understatements. I’d go so far as to say he’s the best Fagin I’ve seen in Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, either on stage or screen, and certainly far superior to his immediate predecessor and fellow comedian, Rowan Atkinson, who, like Djalili, made his musical debut in the part.

With Atkinson, we got “Mr Bean does Dickens”, and never more or less than might be expected; with Djalili, there’s no end of surprise and delight in a performance that could not be more different, either physically or tonally. Djalili’s larger-than-life Fagin is more than a little bit Falstaff: a rotund and robust rascal, full of heart, contradiction and, deep down, conscience, who throws himself between Bill and Nancy in his desperate plea for “no violence” and brings true depth to the admission that he’s “finding it hard to be really as black as they paint”.

In that one number, “Reviewing the Situation”, Djalili embarks on an astonishingly complete character journey, so energetic and convincing that you can almost see the devil and angel perched on his opposite shoulders, whispering in his ears and causing him to twist and turn, first one way, then the other, in frantic indecision.

Djalili also boasts a brilliant rapport with the boys in Fagin’s gang, relishes a good jig with them (making “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, “Be Back Soon” and the curtain call boisterous affairs) and his singing voice is pretty good too. Last but not least, he is deliciously funny, nowhere more so than in the scene where, adopting a variety of accents and religious references, he introduces the jewels of his secret stash box to one another. Priceless.

With Djalili installed, I would happily see Oliver! again and again. His fresh take has not only reinvented a character, it has reinvigorated an entire production.

- Terri Paddock


NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from January 2009 and this production original opening night at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The main physical difference between Sam Mendes’ 1994 Palladium production of Oliver!, now revived by Rupert Goold in the same designs by Anthony Ward on a more suitable stage, and the once recurrent Peter Coe 1960 original, is kinetic: the new version goes up and down and in and out, scenically, while the old one evolved in the teeming labyrinth of Sean Kenny’s set.

The difference is crucial in exposing the shallowness of the acting, particularly in respect of I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger as Nancy. She looks in good shape in her red dress and piled up hair, but her voice, while true, is simply not strong enough for the rigours of six performances a week (she has Wednesday and Thursday nights off) and her stage presence is crudely one-dimensional.

She doesn’t convey how Nancy might sing “As Long As He Needs Me” about her abusive criminal consort Bill Sikes (Burn Gorman) and then immediately betray him; neither Sally Dexter, nor the great Georgia Brown in the first production, had this problem because their emotional plight was caught up in a warped sexual dependency.

Rowan Atkinson’s Fagin is a leering caricature that lacks the musical finesse and manic glee patented by Ron Moody without really filling in the darker side. He hits hard on the alliteration in “You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two” but is always half a beat behind the band. He twists his body into a corkscrew of confusion while reviewing the situation, but the number never acquires an accumulative momentum.


Rowan Atkinson as Fagin

Some areas of the show, notably those involving Mr Bumble (Julius D’Silva) and the Widow Corney (Wendy Ferguson), and the Sowerberrys (Julian Bleach and Louise Gold), are richly mined in Goold’s direction. And the show has a colourful physical grandeur in its densely populated workhouse scene (literally dozens of boys eventually spewing the demanding Oliver) and in the centre-piece jollity of “Consider Yourself,” where a city comes progressively alive with each chorus and where Matthew Bourne’s cheeky Cockney choreography, satirical and freshly inventive, comes triumphantly into its own.

The thieves’ kitchen is a riot of orange and crimson kerchiefs, and the Bloomsbury residence of Mr Brownlow (Julian Glover), the gentleman whose picked pocket leads to Oliver’s accidental salvation, is a pleasing perspective of crescent and square, joyously populated by one of Lionel Bart’s most brilliant sequences, the mood-setting vocal clamour of “Who Will Buy,” rich in street cries and contrapuntal textures.

On opening night, Harry Stott’s colourless Oliver (not his fault, the role’s a cipher, as it is in Dickens) was easily outshone by Ross McCormack’s Artful Dodger and both were upstaged by an impish infant with a broom. The bridges and gantries lend a spectacular dimension to the staging of a show that reveals much more of its heart in the wonderful music – the orchestra is under the direction of Graham Hurman – than it does in the main performances.

- Michael Coveney