Tag Archives: Hugh Blackwood

Let’s Twist Again


Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 28th May, 2017


There must be an unwritten law that every am-dram group, every school, must stage a production of Lionel Bart’s evergreen musical at some point.  Now, it’s the turn of the Crescent and it’s an excellent fit.  What is perhaps the best musical Britain has ever produced continues to draw in the crowds and to satisfy the audiences.  In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.  We come to Dickens through this musical – and might be surprised that the Victorian writer didn’t put songs in it.

Musical director Gary Spruce, at the helm of a fine orchestra, sets the tone and the show gets off to a cracking start with a well-drilled and beautifully voiced chorus of orphans singing with wistful enthusiasm about food, glorious food.  Oliver (cute as a button George Westley-Smith) speaks out against his lot by asking for a second helping of gruel, and is sanctioned for it.  He is sold to an undertaker (a suitably creepy Paul Forrest) in a kind of ‘work unfair’ programme, but he escapes from this bullying and exploitation only to fall in with a den of thieves as soon as he gets to London.  Westley-Smith is almost too little, his vulnerability too pronounced, to be the 13 year-old Oliver professes to be, but he sings like an angelic choirboy.  The aching loneliness of Where is Love? will break your heart.

Nick Owen is good fun as the bombastic Mr Bumble, at his best in tandem with Sue Resuggan’s Widow Corney.  Their duet, I Shall Scream, is hilariously staged, a music hall song among the ballads and big show tunes.  Oscar Cawthorne makes a chirpy Artful Dodger and Phil Leonard’s Bill Sykes is pure menace, his shadow looming across the backdrop before he makes his entrances.  Megan Doyle is sweet and knowing as Bet, but it is Charlotte Dunn’s Nancy that is the beating heart of the production.  In a West End worthy performance, Dunn belts in proper theatrical Cockney – Her searingly heartfelt As Long As He Needs Me isn’t a love song, but an abuse victim justifying her position to herself.  Bart, you see, sneaks in the darkness of the Dickens novel, among some of the brighter moments, although he affords lovable rogue Fagin an escape from the gallows to which Dickens consigns him.

Hugh Blackwood’s Fagin – a gift of a part to any actor – is everything you would want.  Funny, sentimental, conniving, this Fagin looks particularly well-fed off his child exploitation racket.  You can bet he hasn’t been DBS checked.

Stewart Snape’s costume designs are characterful and do most of the evoking of the period.  James Booth’s higgledy-piggledy, hotchpotch of a set gives us all the locations at once, so it’s down to the lighting, also by Booth, to define the time and place of each scene.  For the most part, it’s highly effective and director Tiffany Cawthorne delivers the goods.  There are a couple of moments, unfortunately both of them crucial to the plot, where the action lacks focus.  The arrest of Oliver at the end of the first act, and the manhunt for Sykes in the closing moments, both suffer from an overly busy stage with too much going on for the audience to know where to look.  This is easily tweakable though, with lighting cues, or freeze frames, or whatever.

Above all, the show is a chance for the talented members of the Crescent to impress and entertain.  The choral singing is especially lovely from both kids and adults alike.  This production does a wonderful job of reminding us why we keep going back to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and keep on asking for more.


Fagin, Oliver and Dodger picking pockets and winning hearts. Hugh Blackwood, George Westley-Smith and Oscar Cawthorne. (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)


Some achieve greatness


Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 22nd November, 2015


There is much to admire and enjoy in Colin Judges’s modern-day production with a distinct Mediterranean vibe. The set denotes grandeur and climate: a sturdy gated backdrop of stone walls abuts onto a patio of decorative flagstones on which the drama will be played out. A band of musicians in casual beach-bar wear warms us up with some sweet and melodious music by Sheila Amman, which is both of the moment and has hints of Tudor tunes. The costumes (by Stewart Snape) are colourful and in keeping with the setting.  Adam Lovelock’s sound design is especially effective at depicting different locations and Pete Laver’s lighting sets both mood and time and day beautifully. There is an artistic integrity to the production that works very well, including why men in this day and age are walking around tooled up with swords!

Sadly, Jordan Chilvers’s does not convince as the lovesick Orsino, needing to highlight his mood swings a touch more. Similarly, Rachel Cooper’s thoughtful but rather passive Viola could do with a bit more swagger when in Cesario guise, in order to knock Olivia out of her proposed seven years of mourning and headlong into distraction and infatuation.

As soon as Sir Toby Belch (Crescent stalwart Les Stringer) comes on, the energy levels rocket and the show recovers from its languid start to become a highly enjoyable event. Stringer brings detail and nuance to Sir Toby, as well as delivering the broader aspects of this hedonistic old sot. As Sir Toby’s sidekick and drinking buddy, Paul Brotherton almost steals the show with his consistently hilarious characterisation. His Sir Andrew Aguecheek is camper than Christmas but is served up with a good deal of inner truth and tenderness. It’s a fabulous and endearing creation.

Elli Holden makes for a coolly calculating Olivia, who wears her status as lady of the house as easily as her veil. Sophie Gray is good fun as a cheekily calculating and spirited Maria, while Hugh Blackwood’s monumental Malvolio is an absolute hoot. Lugubrious and measured at first, his manic episodes later on are all the more of a contrast – and yet he manages to make us love him, well before the end when his abuse is brought to light. A joy.

I have a particular fondness for Feste the fool, here appealingly played by Mark Payne, lively and witty and warm, with a pleasant singing voice to boot. Director Colin Judge hits most of the high spots, wringing out the comedy of set pieces like the late-night boozed-up sing-song, and the letter scene. Most of the cast deliver Shakespeare’s blank verse and prose with clarity and understanding, bringing out not only the humour but the melancholy of this ancient rom-com.

If you’re in Birmingham next week, give the Christmas markets a swerve and treat yourself to a night out at the Crescent. This Twelfth Night is a bittersweet confection well worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

twelfth night

Mark Payne as Feste