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A CurtainUp London Review
In the programme Sam Mendes is credited with directing the 1994 Palladium production of Oliver!. I didn't see the earlier incarnation but I presume some of that production must remain intact, or is at least an influence, and I am told by those who saw it fifteen years ago, that the new production is largely Mendes' own. I would guess that Rupert Goold would have had ideas to darken the piece but producer Cameron Mackintosh may have differed.
Previewing since 13th December, it was over a month before the critics were allowed in to review in mid January. Of course that move will make Oliver! eligible for the best musical awards in 2009 whereas an opening in 2008 might have split any laurels. So does Oliver! deserve its advance box office?
Rowan Atkinson, better known to television audiences as Mr Bean or in the Blackadder series is the star draw as Fagin, the organiser and pimp of child thieves whom he grooms for a criminal life on the streets, pick pocketing and stealing. Near the end of the first act he picks up a teddy bear, a Mr Bean regular prop and tosses it into the furnace as if to tell the children in the audience that he isn't Mr Bean but a hard hearted villain. However I found that Atkinson was really playing for laughs rather than villainy but that fault may be as much to do with Lionel Bart's rewriting of Dickens' altogether darker Oliver Twist into the musical Oliver!. When towards the close, Fagin asks for a change of scene, the set actually moves. But it is the darkness which is missing: the titillation of fear. Parents can however be reassured that children will not have nightmares or leave sobbing. The murder of Nancy (Jodie Prenger) is low key and Bill Sikes (Burn Gorman) doesn't terrify.
The opening number is impressive as the cast of 50 children (there are three teams of 50 so that each child is not overworked, although the pay for walk-ons at £20 is reported in the popular press as way below what is usual in the West End) trudge their way to the tables in the workhouse to await the dishing out of the thin soup known as gruel, I was reminded of Fritz Lang's Metropolis where the factory workers bend under the yoke of capitalism. The motto "God is Love" is written above the workhouse in cast iron and the children march relentlessly to a newly orchestrated (to me) opening number, the whole scene devoid of colour as grey monochrome predominates. Of course the illusion that these children are hungry and oppressed is shattered as they burst into enthusiastic song with "Food, Glorious Food". Steaming plates of Christmas feasts are paraded past them, a crisp, golden turkey, an enormous Christmas Pudding, a huge, wobbly pink blancmange. From the bridge their custodians are observed by the Workhouse Guardians with their ridiculous hair from drawings by Boz silhouetted against the light.
Anthony Ward's still impressive set has London landmarks moving as the cast pass through London. There are the outlines of St Paul's and other City churches and the elegant Regency crescent where Mr Brownlow (Julian Glover) lives. Costume and sets are a high point in this finely detailed production. When Oliver (Harry Stott/Lawrence Jeffcoate/Gwion Wyn Jones) has to leave the workhouse in a snowstorm to the song "Boy for Sale" we feel the cold and when he ends up in Sowerberry's Undertakers, the lighting casts dramatic shadows of the hunchbacked undertaker played by Julian Bleach of Shockheaded Peter fame and poor Oliver has to sleep in a coffin.
Matthew Bourne has made an impact on the choreography with the delightful Dodger (Eric Dibb-Fuller/Ross McCormack/Robert Madge) leading the boys in a swaggering dance with knees akimbo. The crowd scenes are so evocative of London life in the nineteenth century and add to the atmosphere. In Fagin's den, the boys are choreographed together as a carriage and four then a sailboat in the "I'd Do Anything" song. In the Second Act, again, the crowd outside Mr Brownlow's residence dance as the earlier street criers merge with children playing, milkmaids cavorting with Harrods delivery men in this posh part of town.
Jodie Prenger who won the part of Nancy after the public voted for her is a Blackpool lass who struggles with the Cockney accent and its dropped 'h's. Her vocals are somewhat adenoidal but she has a warm personality as Nancy. She wasn't the producer's favourite for the role but that's the risk taken, in allowing the public to have a final say, in return for massive advance publicity and ticket sales.
Bart's tunes are super and thoroughly good fun. Songs in the pub like "Oom Pah Pah" show the jolly side of London life which was in reality desperate and grindingly poor. Some of the experiences in Oliver Twist were Dickens' own after the bankruptcy of his father and his experiences as a child worker, but Bart's Oliver! doesn't really engage with the terrible conditions so we cannot expect this production to. But I cannot help wondering if Goold had been given his head how much more satisfied this critic would have been with something less like Dickens Lite. Having said that, most people will love this well sung, well staged, well directed production of an old favourite and it's booking well ahead.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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