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 In fact, it has probably superseded the Dickens original in the public consciousness.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.