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Review Round-up: Consider Oliver! a Smash?

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Cameron Mackintosh's hugely anticipated West End revival of Lionel Bart's Dickensian 1960 musical Oliver! opened at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane last night (14 January 2009, previews from 13 December 2008), having already made the producer a hefty profit after becoming the fastest-selling show in West End history with a £15 million box office advance (See Also Today’s WOS TV and 1st Night Photos).

Seven months after winning I'd Do Anything, the "people's Nancy" Jodie Prenger claimed her prize in the role of Nancy, alongside Burn Gorman (from TV’s Torchwood and Bleak House) as her brutal boyfriend Bill Sikes and, making a stage comeback after more than 20 years, Rowan Atkinson as Fagin.

This is the first major outing for Oliver! since the 1999 death of Lionel Bart, who wrote the book, music and lyrics. Based on Sam Mendes’ 1994 staging, which ran 1,366 at the London Palladium, the musical is co-directed by Rupert Goold and Matthew Bourne, choreographed by Bourne and designed by Anthony Ward.

Oliver! is based on Charles Dickens’ literary classic Oliver Twist and, beyond its theatre fanbase, found legions of fans from the 1968 film version. The score includes now-famous songs including “Consider Yourself”, “It’s a Fine Life”, “As Long as He Needs Me”, “Oom-pah-pah”, “Food, Glorious Food”, “I’d Do Anything” and the title song.

Harry Stott, Gwion Jones and Laurence Jeffcoate - chosen by Mackintosh and I’d Do Anything judge Andrew Lloyd Webber as part of the TV series - alternate in the title role, while Ross McCormack, Eric Dibb Fuller and Robert Madge alternate as the Artful Dodger. (Stott and McCormack played the roles on opening night.) The cast also features Julian Glover as Mr Brownlow, Julian Bleach as Mr Sowerberry/Dr Grimwig, Louise Gold as Mrs Sowerberry/Mrs Bedwin, Julius D'Silva as Mr Bumble, Wendy Ferguson as Widow Corney and Tamsin Carroll as the alternate Nancy.

While not rapturous, overnight critics welcomed Oliver!. As for its high-profile casting, Rowan Atkinson won over the majority with a Fagin that was deemed “both sinister and hilarious”, Burn Gorman was found to be “truly chilling” as Bill Sikes and the public’s selection of the notably “warm” Jodie Prenger was “pretty much justified”. There was high praise for the supporting performances of Julian Bleach, Louise Gold, Julius D'Silva and Wendy Ferguson, and for the pluck and winsomeness of the various child stars. Comparisons were inevitably drawn between Mendes’ 1994 production and Goold’s recreation, which, though not “historic”, was said to sit much better at Drury Lane. And whatever their reservations, critics concluded that Oliver! is nevertheless an obvious “smash hit”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “The main physical difference between Sam Mendes’ 1994 Palladium production of Oliver! … 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 … 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 … 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.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “This version, newly directed by Rupert Goold, is a re-creation of Sam Mendes' 1994 production. But not even the expertise of the staging and a handful of fine performances can disguise the essential thinness of this piece of deodorised musical Dickens … But although this is sanitised Dickens, Bart manages to write some thumping good tunes and provide scope for individual actors. And, allowing that Bart's Fagin is hardly the Manichean figure of Dickens's fevered imagination, Rowan Atkinson turns in a sprightly, distinctive performance … If this revival is worth catching, it is largely for Atkinson's saturnine comic presence. The biggest fuss, of course, has been about the casting of Jodie Prenger as Nancy on the strength of TV's I'd Do Anything competition. The good news is that she acquits herself extremely well … Goold stages it with fluent efficiency, and Anthony Ward's sets, with their perspectives of St Paul's and their sliding bridges, are handsome to look at. But too many of the characters are ciphers, and the plot is largely a device for getting the numbers on.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “Once you have bought into Bart's shameless sentimentality, you remember that Dickens could be shamelessly sentimental too on occasion, and settle down to wallow in a superbly melodic musical that presses all the emotional buttons while seeming especially apt and uplifting in hard times ... Rowan Atkinson is both sinister and hilarious as Fagin, which is just as it should be, sings pretty well, and brings some deliciously deft comic touches to the role. The people's favourite as Nancy, Jodie Prenger, brings a warmth to the stage you could warm your hands by, and wrings every last ounce of emotion from that deeply dodgy celebration of wife beaters, “As Long as He Needs Me”. Burn Gorman, with his baby face and psychotic rage, is a truly chilling Bill Sikes, while Julian Bleach contributes two brilliant, truly Dickensian grotesques as the undertaker, Sowerberry, and the doctor, Grimwig. The kids are great too. At last night's opening Harry Stott was a sweet, sincere Oliver while Ross McCormack was almost scarily assured and charismatic as the Artful Dodger.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “I came out hymning the praises of designer Ward. Those hungry boys still sing “Food Glorious Food” with touching ardour, “Oom-Pah-Pah” is old music hall deftly modernised and Matthew Bourne’s choreography looks neatly animated. Yet I felt director Rupert Goold, whose revelatory productions of Macbeth and Six Characters in Search of an Author have deservedly made him the theatre’s latest golden boy, came up with a traditional, unadventurous Oliver!. He kept to the line of Sam Mendes’ Palladium production too closely. He rendered the nasty, violent and corrupt world of Oliver Twist rather pantomimic - only Julian Bleach as the sinister undertaker, Mr Sowerberry singing ‘That’s Your Funeral’, artfully conveyed elements of the sinister, grotesque and comic. Even Atkinson, though his imagination allows him to give Fagin a touch of transvestism, left my blood mildly chilled. A smash hit, obviously, but not an historic one.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “I can’t say that Rupert Goold, who is credited as the director, does much to reinvent Mendes’ production as I recall it, but he certainly gets plenty of energy out of his cast. Things start as they mean to go on in the towering workhouse - iron stairs, bleak benches, a palpable stench of lovelessness - that is just one of Anthony Ward’s splendidly atmospheric sets … The particular Oliver chosen to perform last night was Harry Stott, a gentle, likable boy who could maybe produce more fear when he’s asked to sleep with the coffins that belong to his boss - Julian Bleach, looking as if he’s slithered out of a crypt in Transylvania - and more rage when his dead mother is horribly insulted. And did Jodie Prenger, who won the role of Nancy in one of those deplorably sadistic television contests, justify her choice? I must admit she did. Initially she struck me as parading, posturing, performing rather than acting, but she went on to prove herself a tough, coarse, credible presence with a big, robust voice - and that’s all that is needed.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars)- “Drury Lane has known more tuneful musical stars in its long history ... but London's grand old temple of dreams can seldom have played host to one with such a God-given gift for comedy. Rowan Atkinson, playing that warped scout master Fagin, was the eyebrow-wriggling, funny-walking, laugh-wringing supremo of the show last night when Lionel Bart's wonderful musical opened at the Theatre Royal. Mr Atkinson is not the only rocket of the night. Jodie Prenger, who won the part of the doomed, decent Nancy in a primetime BBC1 talent show, stands up to the test like a sturdy galleon ... Anyone who needs cheering up - and after yesterday's jobs news, heaven knows, that probably means most of us - should get along to Drury Lane sharpish and catch this humdinger of a night."
  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) “With three job-sharing juvenile leads and a heroine selected via reality TV, plus a household-name comedian as one of the villains and a rising small-screen star as the other, Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of this glorious post-war musical has been designed to make half the country feel they have a stake in it. Small wonder it is already the fastest-selling show in West End history … The good news is that the public’s faith in Jodie was pretty much justified. She looks wonderful as the doomed tart-with-a-heart, and if she gabbles some of Lionel Bart’s brilliant lyrics in the first half, she warms up magnificently for the heart-rending anthem ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ … Burn Gorman … doesn’t have the physical size usually associated with the role, but with his other-worldly features and powerful voice, he creates the brute menace of this cold-hearted killer … The freshest element of this retread production is Rowan Atkinson as Fagin – using his rubber features to great comic effect with blatant shades of Mr Bean … His brilliantly hesitant delivery of ‘Reviewing the Situation’ is easily the most inventive turn of the evening … If there is one star of the show, it really is the late author, lyricist and composer.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Terri Paddock

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