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A CurtainUp London London Review

Boy: Fagin these sausages are mouldy!
Fagin: Shut up and drink your gin!
Jodie Prenger as Nancy with Fagin's gang
(Photo: Michael Le Poer Trench)
The most anticipated musical of the year is the revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver!. With the now usual formula of a BBC television reality show to cast Nancy and the consequent boost to box office takings as a percentage of the television audience of millions decide to book for the stage musical, this production of Oliver! is recession proof despite top tickets at 75 a piece. Add star director Rupert Goold, incredible choreographer Matthew Bourne and scene and costume designer Anthony Ward and even those theatre aficionados who usually shun musicals will want to see this production of Oliver!

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.

Book, Lyrics and Music by Lionel Bart
Based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Directed by Rupert Goold
1994 Palladium production directed by Sam Mendes

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Jodie Prenger, Burn Gorman, Julius D'Silva, Julian Glover, Julian Bleach, Wendy Ferguson, Louise Gold, Harry Stott/Lawrence Jeffcoate/Gwion Wyn Jones, Eric Dibb-Fuller/Ross McCormack/Robert Madge, Tamsi n Carroll
With: Myra Sands, Mary Cormack, David Roberts, Philip Catchpole, Charlotte Spencer, Tim Laurenti, Ian Jervis, Chris Bennet, Jay Bryce, Tom Edden, Lynne Wilmot, Jenny Fitzpatrick, Lyndsey Gardiner, Sarah Lark, Hadrian Delacey, Clare Rickard, Cara Elston, Susan Fay, Oliver Roll, Hollie Taylor, Robert Kershaw, Matthew Clarke, Alison Dormer, Rebecca Louis, Spencer Stafford
Farthings Team: Lewis Andrews, Sam Edwards Bailey, James Beesley, Gregory Bennett, James Burgess, Harry Child, Archie Duffy, Zachary Harris, Jake Howlett, Michael Redfearn
Shillings Team: Daniel Barber, Arthur Denny Byrne, Daniel Fitzsimons, Kuan Frye, Ben Houghton, Daniel Huttlestone, James Millsom, Jack Morlen, Tom Richardson, Mitchell Zhangazha
Tanners Team: William Edden, Daniel Ferrari-Lane, Jake Goldman, Jack Hamshere, Dominic Hansford, Callum Henderson, Idriss Kargbo, Jordan Li-Smith, Jermaine Nelson, Ben Wilson
Designer: Anthony Ward
Co-Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Musical Supervisor: Stephen Brooker
Orchestrator: William David Brohn
Musical Director: Graham Hurman
Lighting: Paule Constable
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 412 2955
Booking to 20th June 2009
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 19th January 2009 performance at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London WC1 (Tube: Covent Garden)
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Overture - Orchestra
  • Food,_Glorious_Food- Orphans
  • Oliver! Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney
  • I Shall Scream! - Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney
  • Boy for Sale - Mr. Bumble
  • That's Your Funeral - Mr. Sowerberry, Mrs. Sowerberry, and Mr. Bumble
  • Where Is Love? - Oliver
  • Consider Yourself - The Artful Dodger, Oliver, and Chorus
  • You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two - Fagin and Fagin's Gang
  • It's a Fine Life - Nancy, Bet, and Fagin's Gang
  • I'd Do Anything - The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Oliver, Bet, Fagin, and Fagin's Gang
  • Be Back Soon - Fagin, The Artful Dodger, Oliver and Fagin's Gang
Act Two
  • Oom-Pah-Pah - Nancy and Chorus
  • My Name - Bill Sikes
  • As Long As He Needs Me - Nancy
  • Where is love? (Reprise) - Mrs. Bedwin
  • Who Will Buy? — Oliver and Company
  • It's a Fine Life (Reprise) - Bill Sikes, Nancy, Fagin, and The Artful Dodger
  • Reviewing the Situation - Fagin
  • Oliver! (reprise) - Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney
  • As Long As He Needs Me (Reprise) - Nancy
  • The Chase — Orchestra and Company
  • Reviewing the Situation (Reprise) - Fagin
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