This new Leicester Haymarket production of the classic Lionel Bart musical is the first to be staged since the national tour of Cameron Mackintosh's West End show. So the question was always going to be, how would the show from director Paul Kerryson and choreographer David Needham compare with its predecessor?
Well, the first plus point was engaging former RSC actor Julian Forsyth as Fagin, following the tour's disastrous casting of cheeky Gary Wilmot in the role. Forsyth is an accomplished and stylish performer who brings more than a touch of the original Charles Dickens' character to the show, miserly and greedy yet with a soft spot for his pickpocketing boys.
Plus point number two is Linzi Hateley's Nancy, with a fantastic voice and down-to-earth sassiness. This West End star sings her heart out on popular numbers such as 'Oom Pah Pah' and 'As Long As He Needs Me', making Nancy a loving girl with a good heart despite the desperation of working class Victorian living.
Three teams of 21 youngsters were selected for this Christmas production, and they do not disappoint either. All are well-drilled in their dance routines with some nice touches thrown in, including the tiniest pickpocket constantly being last in the queue, pausing to swig from his gin bottle. The big numbers, notably 'Who Will Buy' and 'Consider Yourself' are packed with Needham's trademark busy choreography, each slick to the point of perfection and with energy and polish to rival many West End shows - including its predecessor!
Nice character cameos too from Fiona Dunn and Greg Pichery as Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, and Peter Edbrook as the pompous Bumble, although Eddie O'Connell's Bill Sikes is neither big enough in stature or aggression to really create an air of nastiness.
Designer Andy Walmsley creates a masterpiece of moving sets allowing the theatre to be transformed from workhouse to street scene to Fagin's home and back again with minimum effort, although some of the changes take too long and can be heard above Julian Kelly's orchestra.
Likewise, both the orchestra and vocals need a major increase in volume if the showstopping songs are to really make the audience sit up and listen. 'As Long As He Needs Me' should be right at the top of the tingle-factor stakes, and the vocals on the dramatic reprise of 'It's A Fine Life' could not be heard at all on the night I attended. The sound crew would do well to remember that bodies soak up noise, and a packed house means everything needs re-balancing.
Those particular problems aside, though, I think this production of Oliver! can consider itself a hit!
At the Leicester Haymarket until 5 February 2000 and then on tour