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Oliver! With a Twist

As the long-anticipated revival of Oliver! opens in the West End this week, Roger Foss finds out from ‘people’s’ Nancy’ Jodie Prenger and Burn Gorman, who plays her brutal lover Bill Sikes, why there’s more to Lionel Bart’s musical than a Dickensian cockney knees-up and a boy who asks for more.

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Had Charles Dickens been reviewing the situation when Jodie Prenger won the role of Nancy in Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, he might well have been reminded of his opening line in A Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.

The best & the worst

After weeks of slogging it out with a dozen Nancy hopefuls in the BBC’s I’d Do Anything talent contest to find a leading lady to play Bill Sikes’ streetwise prostitute lover (and three boys to play alternate Olivers), Prenger, the 28-year-old ex-online agony aunt and club singer who had almost given up on showbusiness due to her weight problems, was clearly on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream to star in the West End after a string of setbacks.

“I’d given up singing for two years. I used to be 22 stone at my biggest. I was always getting the knock-backs at auditions. I’d walk in and there’d be girls who were size sixes flipping their legs behind their necks. I gave up because I just couldn’t keep putting myself through it.” Thanks to reality TV casting and the voting public who took to her down-to-earth honesty from the start – and a relentless slimming regime that shed eight stone – the best of times had finally arrived.

Or had they? Watched by 20 million viewers in her Nancy knockout against 18-year-old Jessie Buckley, Prenger was proclaimed top Nancy. But when the judging panel was asked by host Graham Norton which contestant they preferred, Mackintosh and head judge Andrew Lloyd Webber (along with Barry Humphries) revealed that Buckley would have been their Nancy. Then fellow judges John Barrowman and Denise Van Outen said they were torn between the two. Suddenly, Prenger’s hard-won “oom-pah-pah” was in danger of losing its oomph.

But Jodie soon got her oomph back. Lloyd Webber graciously endorsed her as the people’s choice to play doomed Nancy, who saves workhouse orphan Oliver Twist but ends up bludgeoned to death by vicious Bill Sikes, despite declaring “I’ll love him right or wrong” in Bart’s show-stopping torch song “As Long as He Needs Me”. “People love her, they love her open personality,” Lloyd Webber said. “I think that’s what makes her Nancy for the public. Her strengths are her personality and her very, very strong voice.”

Crash course training

Mackintosh, who had also reportedly expressed doubts about Prenger being too “big” for the role, added at the time that he was “thrilled for Jodie. She’ll give a terrific performance, and I really look forward to putting her into training and getting her into rehearsals.”

True to his word, while Mackintosh was announcing Prenger’s co-stars in Oliver! (Rowan Atkinson making good a long-held ambition to play thieves’ kitchen crook Fagin, and the superb Burn Gorman of Torchwood and Bleak House fame as the psychotic Sikes) and teaming choreographer Matthew Bourne with director Rupert Goold to helm the new production based on Sam Mendes’ 1994 staging at the London Palladium, he was also arranging a crash training schedule for his Nancy.

A four-week acting course at RADA to get Prenger’s acting muscles in trim was followed by a three-week stint in the ensemble of Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre, designed to give her a West End taster before she began rehearsals for Oliver!. Mackintosh has also given Prenger Wednesday and Thursday evenings off to protect her voice, engaging Tamsin Carroll, the award-winning star of Mackintosh’s 2002 Australian production of Oliver!, as the alternate Nancy.

“The RADA course was unlike anything I’d done before but such a fantastic opportunity to learn from the very best in the business,” Prenger recalls. “After all of the commotion of I’d Do Anything, it was the first time I had the chance to focus on the role, and really think about shaping the character. Joining Les Mis was a blast – working in a company of such talented performers gave me a real sense of team spirit and getting up on stage night after night was such a confidence boost. I could go into Oliver! with a glimpse into how the West End works.”

Family feelings

Even so, she admits that her nerves were jangling when she arrived for her first day of Oliver! rehearsals. “I overcame it all when I walked in on the children singing ‘Consider yourself part of the family’, which is genuinely what is has become – one big family.”

From then on, she’s faced the hard work of developing her voice for a stage performance: “The showstoppers like ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ were a big test – because of both the vocal range and the fact that you want to deliver a performance with power and conviction every time you do it... it’s just lucky I had so much practice singing it on the telly!

“Obviously the nerves will be there on the first night and, given the hype around the show, there’s a real pressure to give the public the Nancy they want to see. But at the same time, I honestly can’t wait to unleash the character and just enjoy every minute.”

According to Prenger’s co-star Burn Gorman – who, despite a long and successful background as a musician performing live music, is also making his West End musical theatre debut as Nancy’s nemesis, the Nancification of Jodie has paid off. “She is really, really fantastic in the role. In fact I’m inspired by her and the entire team. I have nothing but respect for musical theatre people – they work so hard – and I’m astounded by the entire Oliver! operation. It’s like a huge but very polished juggernaut. I’m just praying I can do a good a job,” he tells me as he whizzes between a costume fitting and the first full run-through of Act One, which includes those ever-popular Bart numbers “Food Glorious Food”, “Where Is Love”, “Consider Yourself”, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “I’d Do Anything”.

A penchant for villains

With a solo song in Act Two to deliver – the menacing soliloquy “My Name” – Gorman has also been on a training regime. “If they wanted a great singer, I wouldn’t be the first choice for Bill. But it’s an acted-out song – that’s where I am trying to place it. I had quite a long period knowing I had the job so I did as much training as I could – not so much to sing like Jodie but just to have the strength to carry my voice in Drury Lane.”

Best known as Owen Harper in Torchwood and for his stand-out performance as the unfortunate William Guppy in the BBC’s Bleak House, Gorman is now a hot studio property, and his growing legions of fans will be expecting him to continue his penchant for playing idiosyncratic dark-edged characters on stage as Sikes and in ITV’s new adaptation of Wuthering Heights (due to be screened next spring), in which he plays the hate-fuelled alcoholic Hindley Earnshaw.

“Hindley is a total swine, just like Bill Sikes. But then he was rejected by his father and has usurped from his rightful place so he becomes a vengeful but quite sad character.” And how has Gorman approached the equally ambiguous Sikes? “We’ve gone along the line that Bill started out like the Artful Dodger, but over the years the terrible things that he has seen or have happened to him turned him into a stone emotionally. That’s why he would commit murder at the drop of a hat – a terrifying character really.”

Indeed, it’s easy to just think of Oliver! as a cor blimey cockney romp about a little workhouse waif who asked for more gruel. Gorman agrees when I suggest that Bart’s book and catchy score constantly reflects the darkness of Dickens’ original “murderous melodrama” of grim workhouses, filthy dens, low public houses and a vicious London underclass where death and the macabre lurk alongside childhood innocence.

Transformations & terriers

“The show is so well known and loved that to mess around with it too much would be sacrosanct. But on our first day together, Cameron Mackintosh gave the company a welcome talk and said it was the first time a major London production of Oliver! had begun rehearsing without Lionel Bart being there. I get the sense that Lionel was always constantly revising, tweaking and updating to make the show better, and Rupert, our director, is very much in that tradition. He’s absolutely sticking to the story, but encouraging a slightly darker take. And there are a few surprises too.”

One surprise will surely be Prenger’s transformation from Blackpool lass to cockney sparrow. So how is her cockney accent doing? “I thought I was a Northern girl through and through, but it seems you really can take the girl out of Blackpool and drag her down South! I’ve been very lucky to have such a superb vocal coach and gradually I’m picking up all the Cockney rhyming slang. For the first time in my life I understand what they’re saying on EastEnders.”

Another surprise is bound to be the first entrance of Bill’s faithful but ultimately treacherous dog Bull’s Eye, played by an English bull terrier called Teddy. “He’s very sweet and we are great friends,” says Gorman, “but like Bill he has breath from the seventh level of Hell. He enters before me, but in rehearsals he usually got a bit lost and ended up licking his nether regions. That’s something we will definitely get sorted by the opening night.”

Oliver! opens on 14 January 2009 (previews from 13 December 2008) at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it’s initially booking through to 20 June. A longer version of this article appears in the December/January double issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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