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Oliver! (Stevenage)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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It’s always a healthy sign when a regional theatre which normally hosts productions from established companies on the touring circuit decides to stage its own. I’ve an affection for the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage – one of those built in the flurry of new playhouses, concert-halls and leisure centres which characterised the 1970s. What’s more, it’s an increasingly rare survivor.

With a professional production team and cast of principals, this year’s summer musical is Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (yes, it’s yet another show I remember from first-time-round). Director/producer Catherine Lomax and musical director Chris Keen keep the story fast-moving with no attempt to soften the edges of either the score or the grime-infected London slums.

Lomax gets some committed performances from her performers, with fine singing from the adult chorus – “That’s your funeral” and “Who will buy” are particularly effective – as well as from a disciplined troupe of children. Young Russell Farrer is both credible and moving as Oliver with JordanDutton the perkiest of Artful Dodgers.

Aimi Percival and James Williamson are the acidulated Sowerberries, not a couple to whom one would thoughtlessly entrust the remains of one’s nearest and dearest. Fagin is a difficult character to play; his music hints at a lovable rogue, but his words and actions suggest something closer to Bill Sykes than to Nancy. I’m not quite convinced that Nigel Peever has the measure of the part.

Both Amy Bird as Nancy and Jonathan Alden as Sykes give strong performances, both vocally and dramatically. Neither settle for a simplistic audience reaction to the ruthlessly entwined couple they play, which makes them into proper human beings, shaped by circumstances as much as by character.

There’s an un-credited set on two levels with moveable stairs which helps the rapid transition between locations as the story unfolds and some energetic choreography by Khiley Williams. Lomax and Williams are prepared to alternate frenetic movement with stillness to good effect.


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