Oliver! review – much-loved musical is revived in Leeds

Lionel Bart’s classic is back on stage

Jenny Fitzpatrick (Nancy) and Felix Holt (The Artful Dodger) in Oliver!. © Alastair Muir

Leeds Playhouse has once again made a spectacular, though not unmitigated, success of its Christmas show, Oliver!, running for two doubtless near-sell-out months until the end of January. Let’s start with the major success, the youngsters. A large young company show discipline, talent and enthusiasm in abundance as workhouse kids, Fagin’s gang and during the crowd scenes. The triple cast roles of Oliver and the Artful Dodger were filled on press night by super-confident performances by Nicholas Teixeira and Felix Holt, the former in particular keeping a tight grip on the audience’s sympathies and singing beautifully.

Lionel Bart, responsible for book, lyrics and music, kept as much as was reasonable of Charles Dickens for a stage show of just over two hours. The cuts fell where many a Dickens lover would have welcomed them in the novel. Mainly they involved the mysterious and not terribly interesting Mr Monks. This does mean, however, a plethora of melodrama towards the end. The excellent Jenny Fitzpatrick (Nancy), who twice brings the house down with “As Long As He Needs Me”, operates at maximum decibels throughout the later stages and Chris Bennett (Bill Sykes) becomes increasingly histrionic in the one piece of jumbled story-telling, hanging on to the remnants of Dickens’ novel.

The in-the-round staging, a many-sided open space with frequent entry points, walkways above and periodic raised stages jutting out, is ideal for James Brining’s free-wheeling, but precisely disciplined, production. The positives much outweigh the reservations, but I did find it mildly irritating to have an errant structure on my left blocking off some 15 to 20 per cent of the acting area from my view. Lucy Hind’s choreography used every inch of the stage and the act one finale, “Be Back Soon”, causing necks to be craned to follow the flight of Fagin’s gang chasing behind and beside the audience.

Of course, Fagin can be the real problem. In these days of strident anti-semitism, what are you to do with an elderly Jewish crook who employs a gang of kids to “pick a pocket or two”? Making him non-Jewish is not an option: Bart buried his two songs irreversibly in the Jewish tradition. It’s difficult to tell what will offend, but Steve Furst and Brining seem to have it about right, coming up with a stunning treatment of “Reviewing The Situation”.

Frankie Hart (Bet), Jenny Fitzpatrick (Nancy) with Hughie Higginson (The Artful Doger) and Fagin’s gang in Oliver! © Alastair Mui

The remainder of the 21-strong cast (not counting young company members) form an able and committed ensemble, some of them emerging from time to time to take on feature roles. Minal Patel and Rosie Ede have fun as Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney, their Brummie accents a pleasant surprise, and provide a nice comic turn when all is getting dramatic: good to see, “…then the law is a ass” retained.

The Sowerberrys (Harry Waller and Laura Cairns) and their household camp it up amusingly in the days before Oliver gets involved with real villains and Simon Green and Christopher Glover turn the temperature down with Messrs Brownlow and Grimwig, the latter astutely reconfigured as the doctor.

The nine-piece band frequently sounds a good deal bigger and plays its part in the exquisitely staged “Who Will Buy?” as well as the rambunctious knockabout of, say, “Food Glorious Food”. Glorious indeed.