Oliver!

 

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

 

Review by Emma Shane

© February 2009

 

Lionel Bartís masterpiece is one of the greatest and most durable British musicals, one that is done a lot, a bit like such American classics as My Fair Lady, and possibly Annie Get Your Gun. The kind of shows that even people who donít know that much about musical theatre have probably seen a production of, and are almost certainly familiar with some, if not most of the songs. I had seen two amateur productions, but never a professional one, until now. I thought it being such a classic would be easy to write a review of (because of not having to worry about remembering the order of the plot), but how wrong could I be?

It has been said that it is the first time a major West End production of Oliver! has been mounted without Bart himself. Fortunately several of the people involved with this production do have significant connections with either the show or Bart, one of those being the producer Cameron Mackintosh (whose first job in the theatre was as an ASM on a touring production of the show). Itís those connections which give the show a little extra lift, a sense of belonging, of being well in.

 

The show opens with Widow Corny ringing a bell. The classic Food Glorious Food gets the show off to a good start. Itís a song which could so easily have been either over the top or boring, but Lionel Bart was such a skilful lyricist that the song really works.And works a jolly sight better than what the likes of Charles Hart would have written for that sort of situation. (not that Charles Hart isnít a reasonable songwriter, but Bartís skill with lyrics, really getting them to fit a tune, was something special. A great opening number, but putting it on a big West End stage gives it something extra, the benefit of a large cast, and a lot of props. These elements both create spectacle and bring out the lyrics in a way that canít really be done on small scale productions. I was not overly keen on the military precision of the orchestration, but I could see that with a large cast (especially one containing a lot of children) that was quite necessary, and it also serves to give a sense of the institutional discipline necessary in a large institution such as a workhouse. The shear scale of the production is certainly impressive, but is it necessary? Certainly the children marching on stage created an impressive Busby Berkley like spectacle for those high up in the auditorium, while those audience closer too the stage could see the precision that had gone into the childrenís expressions and costumes. Though I did find myself wondering by what means the long hair of some of the girls among the kids was tied back, was it with something like ribbon appropriate to the period? The Workhouse Kids take their places at three long tables. During the number two in each group mount the table, one plays the part of a roast joint, the other the carver. The children are also clearly a wide ethnic mix, this actually makes them more convincing as a group, since Britain (like many countries that once had empires) has been a melting pot of races and nationalities for, well a lot longer than most people realise.

If sitting a long way away, itís much harder to spot individual actors. Seeing the show a second time, much closer up, I did notice Myra Sands as a scowling Matron standing by a door (stage left) as the children marched on.

The title song, Oliver! was performed satisfactorily, as one would expect from professionals. But other than good lyrics was one of the less noticeable numbers.

Mr Bumble and Widow Cornyís scene which followed, brought in a good hint of gin, but was generally played rather over the top by Julius DíSilva and Wendy Ferguson respectively. I hesitate to use the word ďpantomimishĒ, since that is a little unfair on pantomime actors (some of whom are actually very good). As for their song I Shall Scream Mr Bumble, well my own feeling is that Iíve seen it done at least as well, if not better, by amateurs. It was too camped up for my taste. But maybe that works better for some people.

A Matron (nice littlerole for good old West End stalwart Myra Sands) shoves Oliver on stage, with his ďbelongingsĒ, thus leading into Boy For Sale,. An entirely satisfactory performance of the song, which does bring out the lyrics. I was momentarily reminded of the fact that Richard Combes has been known to work this number into his Punch And Judy act. The sweet tune is perhaps also a reminder, that as a writer of musicals Lionel Bart was a twentieth century equivalent of the eighteenth centuryís John Gay (of The Beggarís Opera fame).

 

On to some rather more skilful comedy, to the standard that one would expect from West End professionals. Enter Julian Bleach, as Mr Sowerberry, dragging a coffin onstage with him, as the scene shifters (and some ensemble members, such as Mary Cormack) bring the undertakers set into place. The acting level is further raised a few moments later, when he calls his wife to join him. Louise Gold, with her tremendous stage presence, makes a suitably striking entrance. One canít help noticing her hands in black bloodstained rubber glovers, she also wears a bloodstained apron (as though the character has just been embalming a body or some such), and wipes her gloves on her apron. She wears a hat tied (like a bonnet) on top of what may well be her own distinctive chestnut curls. Her accent is a surprise, for it has a faint hint of Irish about it (which she toned down a little more the second and third time I saw it). Absolutely no reason why not (the character could have come over from Ireland), it makes a good contrast with the later London accents of most of the characters; it also serves to give this women a character. I canít help noticing how Louise Gold and Julian Bleach just knock spots off Julius De Silva when it comes to delivering even their dialogue with perfect timing and delivery. I had always thought the Sowerberrys to be rather minor characters, with a good but not particularly remarkable song. However, I had reckoned without these two actors, and what they would make of the roles. Itís Louise Gold who really makes it, admirably backed up by Julian Bleach, he is clearly one of those actors like Martin Marquez, and, Desmond Barrit when it comes to partnering Louise Gold in a duet, they make a splendid double act. Both of them have spot on comic timing, perhaps helped by the fact that, as their respective resumes in the programme briefly note, both of them are so much more than just actors. Julian Bleach after all is also a musician and composer so he should know a lot about split second timing, while Louise Gold is an accomplished puppeteer (well noted for her work in television comedy). As for the song, Itís Your Funeral, with itís very catchy melody (that sounds strikingly similar to Nut Brown Maiden From The Prairie from Emmerich Kalmanís Countess Maritza), while it has some reasonable lyrics. I couldnít help noticing that other songs in the show have far more ingenious lyrics. Fortunately, Louise Gold is skilled at getting the best out of lyrics, and employs some ingenious tactics to make them more interesting, with a good few quite subtle changes of accent and style in her singing. The sort of thing that one sometimes wonders whether composers would actually approve of, though in this case it would surely have been more than alright.But it isnít just her singing. Louise is also a great actress, and when it comes to delivering dialogue sheís terrific, with near perfect comic timing, something which definitely helps here. Lionel Bart has written some great comedy lines here. Could he ever have imagined them delivered so perfectly?†† For once on the West End stage (in contrast to many of her more recent roles) Louise Gold is playing a character who is funny, a little tough, but not nasty. This isnít one of her monstrous women roles. Louise has given the character a bit of her own vivacious personality, she also makes good use of her expressive face (although itís hard to notice this if you are sitting in the upper circle -no fault of Louiseís, itís just at such a distance away itís difficult to see the nuances in her face, and none too easy from the back of the stalls). Sitting in the front stalls itís much easier to see the wonderful expressive nature of her face. One thing I did notice, however, even from the upper circle, was the way she flashes her sparkling brown eyes at the audience, her whole face seems to light up.

Itís great to see the Sowerberrys brought to life as living breathing characters, hard working people, comical, but real. They are not villains. They treat Oliver harshly, but that is down to the circumstances, a product of the era, they are not deliberately mean. It also soon becomes apparent that Mrs Sowerberry is very much the brains of the pair, and the one who bosses her husband about (and yet the laws of the day would have officially had the husband in charge). Mary Cormack, as Charlotte, had a hard time making herself noticed, she was entirely satisfactory, but much less remarkable.

Left to sleep in the kitchen (how delightfully Louise told him that), Oliver sings Where Is Love, a satisfactory performance, but trying to follow Itís Your Funeral as performed in this production is a hard thing to do, so itís not surprising itís not all that memorable. That said Harry Stottís performance (which I saw soon after the show opened) was a bit more noticeable than when Iíd seen Laurence Jeffcoate do it in the previews. While Gwion Wyn Jones (whom I saw a little while later) is the most mournful, but still not as noticeable as Harry Stott.

An employee, also Charlotteís Young Man, Noah Claypole, comes across as something of a bully, and rather rude in his treatment of people, particularly Oliver. David Roberts did a jolly convincing job here creating a believable character. No wonder Oliver reacts against him, though when Gwion Wyn Jones plays the part itís quite a surprise because heís such a small unassuming boy one doesnít expect it. Itís also perfectly understandable that the Sowerberrys would misread the situation and think Oliver attacked Noah unprovoked. The conviction with which Louise said ďWe might all have been murdered in our bedsĒ was very telling. The kafuffle this causes is hilarious, I particularly noticed Mrs Sowerberry falling over backwards into the open coffin, after Oliver practically barged into her. And when they finally get Oliver into the coffin, (Mrs Sowerberry lifting his head, and either Noah or Charlotte the feet) there is a lovely little fight with the coffin lid, between Oliver inside the coffin, trying to prevent Mrs Sowerberry from closing it. Louise mustíve been very careful to judge precisely how much power to put into those strong hands of hers, to make the fight look a fair one (this was particularly effective with Harry Stott). For this scene (or part of the scene Louise has removed her blood-stained gloves and apron, but added a dusty pink shawl to her costume. This kafuffle ends (after Noah has gone to get help) with Mrs Sowerberry and Charlotte sitting on the lid, and Charlotte throwing water over her mistressís face instead of giving her a drink, Louise reacted so perfectly over that. The seen concluded (after Oliver had run off) with everyone else exiting, Louise was last, and as she did so, she picked up the coffin (by itís handle) and dragged it off-stage, the first time I saw it (during previews) with her powerful left hand, but in the two later performances she did that with her right. A great scene, but she truly made it special. Over fifty six years ago, when Lionel Bart and friends were putting on impromptu cabarets at The International Youth Centre they could surely never have imagined their efforts would eventually result in this brilliant comedy performance at Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

 

That could have been a hard act to follow. But here Matthew Bourne, the kids and eventually the chorus come trumps, with a spectacular performance of the rousing classic Consider Yourself. Stunning choreography. I presume that somewhere he mustíve worked in the famous jazz step actually named Consider Yourself (after it was used in that number in the film version). The brilliance of their dance routine in this number is only something one could get from professional troupers. Itís breathtakingly brilliant. The first time I saw it I was jolly impressed by Dodger (Iím not sure if it was Ross McCormack or Robert Madge), the second time I wasnít quite so impressed by Eric Dibb-Fuller, but he was entirely satisfactory. The third time I saw it, it was definitely Robert Madge, and he was terrific, really full of stage presence. So much so that he actually managed to lead the entire ensemble in that number, which given that that ensemble included some performers with really strong stage presence, is quite something. The first time I saw it, sitting a long way away I didnít really notice who the ensemble were, the second time I noticed they were a very strong ensemble. But it was only on seeing them for the third time I could just start to pick out individuals. For example Iím pretty sure I spotted Wendy Fergusson making a brief appearance. And then there was a girl doing something vigorous with a brush (and bucket), could that be Louise Gold? A little later I noticed a tall woman with a barrow and wondered if that might be Louise, in fact it turns out she fulfils both roles, lending her great strength and enthusiasm to the ensemble, helping to set a high energy performance standard, which everyone seems to measure up to.

The last of the boys to appear is a small one, referred to as Nipper, who appears pushing a broom, in Faginís den. The character is not specifically named in the programme, so we donít know who played him, but itís a little gem of part for a young boy.

In Faginís den, which appears to be down in the sewers, we come quickly to another classic Youíve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two. Rowan Atkinson may not be Ron Moody or for that matter Jonathan Pryce; nevertheless he sings well, acts excellently, and makes both the role of Fagin, and this song his own. Lionel Bartís lyrics really are super, and Rowan Atkinson does them justice. I particularly noticed the line about Robin Hood, because itís so apt. Bart would of course go on to write Twang, but back in his IYC days, he and a friend had concocted ďone sketch about Robin Hood, as written by Dostoevsky and Noel CowardĒ. Iíd never noticed before, that the song appears to have been somewhat Klezmer influenced, perhaps William David Brohnís new orchestrations have brought this quality out in the song. Another thing Iíd never noticed before (seeing amateur productions), was Fagin making sure Oliver was drugged with gin before going to sleep for the first time in the thieves kitchen. While the boys are asleep Bill Sikes enters. Initially, on seeing the previews I didnít think Burn Gorman quite scary enough for the great villain of the show, a character whose name nobody mentions. Yet after a while I realised that this is a true professional actor, and by making the character a little more subtle he had in effect made Bill Sikes more believable as a character, rather than a mere theatrical stereotype. When I saw the show shortly after the opening, and a little later, I noticed he had made the character more outwardly fierce and scary, which is what one expects with that part.The interplay between Burn Gorman and Rowan Atkinson in this scene of serious drama (with very little comedy) actually works remarkably well.

There follows Faginís interplay with his jewellery treasures, some people seem to like to read a lot of sexual ambiguity into this scene. Yet to my eyes it seemed quite innocent, as innocent as a pantomime dame (or for that matter an Ugly Sister). I think seeing innuendo in that scene could be reading too much into it. To me Fagin comes across as a guy who might just have a good imagination, and wants to imagine his jewels as characters. And his delightful line about perhaps someday going to the opera, is well written, a reminder perhaps that (according to David Roperís biography) Bart was not entirely unfamiliar with such high art, having escorted his own sister to a variety of theatrical entertainments (including the opera), so introducing him to the theatrical world. How marvellous that all these years later those early excursions should have eventually led to this amazing theatrical production at Drury Lane.

Faginís threatening of Oliver (who has woken early) that follows genuinely seems to be more about hoping Oliver has does not yet know too much about the nature of thieves business. With Laurence Jeffcoate is seems quite unlikely that Oliver wouldnít have realised what was going on, Harry Stott is just plausible, and while Gwion Wyn Jones plays Oliver as such an innocent you just know he wonít realise at all.††††

The entrance of Nancy and Bet brings us to many more great lyrics with Itís A Fine Life. The only problem is that conductor Graham Hurman persistently takes the song rather too fast, not giving the audience enough time to actually enjoy the lyrics. Nevertheless the first time I saw it Tamsin Carroll sings clearly, and well. While when I saw Jodie Prenger she gave it some really wonderful joie de vivre that makes it a real treat to see.I was particularly amused by the line ďDiseased rats threaten to bring the plague inĒ, since with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, I couldnít help thinking of BlackAdder specifically the Witchcraft trial episode (the one that involved Spitting Imageís original Leading Puppeteer). There is one lyric, however, in that song, that has been puzzling me. The third time I saw the show, Jodieís clear diction meant that for the first time I heard it properly and it made sense, the line ďFine airs and fine graces, donít have to sin to eatĒ. Many singers do not sing the word ďsinĒ at all clearly. However Jodie does.

The second and third time I saw the show, I particularly noticed Nancy (played by Jodie Prenger) caressing young Nipper, in such a way that made me wonder, was it just Nancy being good with the boys, or is Nipper really her own? I donít think Tamsin put that little touch into her portrayal of Nancy (but then she had a slightly greater interplay with Bet), it could just be a little touch Jodie added to her characterisation. Actors do sometimes add their own special little touches to characters.

Iíd Do Anything is practically the signature song of this production (having given itís name to a reality TV series to cast some leading roles). Matthew Bourne has staged it rather well, and of course all the performers do it justice. Tamsin Carroll gives it a lot of character as an actress, while Jodie Prenger relies more on her winning personality and enthusiasm to put the number across, both acquit themselves well. Given what a major role Nancy is, the other female on stage at this point, Bet is somewhat less noticeable, nevertheless Charlotte Spencer proves in this number that she can hold her own. Another really important player in this number is Dodger, the first time I saw it he was pretty good (was it Ross McCormack or Robert Madge? I think it might have been Ross McCormack), the second time, Eric Dibb-Fuller just didnít quite stand up to Jodieís wonderful presence. But the third time I saw it, Robert Madge proved to be the perfect double act with Jodie, because he can match her stage presence.

Jack Grossmanís comments on the radio in December 2008, brings added meaning to the words ďdo not forget this tuneĒ in Be Back Soon, apparently the tune is remarkably similar to a song called Be A Man John Bull which Bart and Grossmen penned for their 1953 Unity Theatre version of Cinderella. This particular production of Oliver! has at least two other connections with that panto. Fortunately this is a rousing tune, and very ably performed by Rowan Atkinson and the gang.

 

The final scene of Act 1, The Robbery, with the orchestra still playing that lovely tune is extraordinary. The chorus finds itself very busy, in a Clerkenwell street scene. The first time I saw the show (from the Upper Circle), surprisingly (given his acting training) I was particularly struck by Tim Laurentiís performance as the Punch And Judy Man, where did he learn to puppeteer?I was paying so much attention to him, that it was quite startling when Julian Glover, as Mr Brownlow, suddenly spoke with great authority and stage presence ďExcuse me, that is mineĒ.The second time I saw the show, this time from the stalls, I found myself equally distracted by noticing that of two barrows that were pushed on stage, one (to stage left, containing hats, with a shoe shiner next to it) was handled by a big (tall) strong woman, though she appeared to stand fairly still during the scene, even almost with her back to the audience, she projected a strong stage presence, I couldnít help wondering, might it be, as in fact it was ďEnglish MuppetĒ Louise Gold. What is it about these puppeteers in this scene? For a second time I was again startled when Julian Gloverís Mr Brownlow took command of the scene very effectively.The third time I saw the show, I was sitting towards the back of the stalls, very much to the centre. Thus the moment the thieves kitchen set parted, and the ensemble streamed through to take their places, right at their head was Louise Gold as the hat seller with her barrow. Almost as soon as she had taken up her position, Julian Glover entered, from bottom stage left, and of all things, the first person to accost him is Louise! trying to sell him a hat, one wonders if he might have had a slight sense of deja-vou, harking back to Lionel Bartís Coronations Mugs sketch. I think either Louiseís radio mike was turned off, or down very low (since she was in the ensemble), yet sitting in the back of the stalls I could distinctlyhear the sound of her voice, though I would have strained to hear what she was actually saying. (the first time I really had been too far away in the upper Circle, and the second time in stalls too close to the orchestra), but still it goes to show that her voice can carry. I was so caught up with watching Louise Gold as the hat seller, actually she does quite a lot showing people her wares, that once again I was startled when Julian Glover took full command of the scene.

There were once quite a number of excellent Unity Theatre players, who ďwent professionalĒ, including: Maxine Audley, Alfie Bass, Una Brandon-Jones, Anne Dyson, Vida Hope, David Kossoff, Harry Landis, Herbert Lom, Warren Mitchell, and, Bill Owen. There arenít many of them left now, and Julian Glover is one of the very few still able to work (on the West End stage). Yet he gives us a sense of the quality of acting that legendary group once brought to British theatre.

As soon as Julian Glover speaks, the whole atmosphere changes, practically everyone moves into position to pay attention to him. Louiseís hat-seller crosses the stage to stand among the crowd on Stage Right, her facial expressions helping to speak volumes about what not only her character, but most of the ensemble are thinking at that point. As the safety curtain descends for the interval, we can see the cast exiting, Louise (with her back to the barrow) pulling her hat-barrow off stage with her.

 

Act two opens set in the Three Cripples Pub, the bar being positioned to stage left, looking into the stage. It opens rousingly (as one expects) with Oom-Pah-Pah. The first time I saw it Tamsin Carroll with all her experience as an actress and the chorus do their utmost to do it justice; the second time Jodie Prenger brings her wonderful Joie de vivre to the fore, and along with the chorus all do their best to do it justice. They do a very splendid best. It is probably helped by the fact that (unbeknownst to me when I saw it the first two times), the ensemble included, very near the centre front of the stage, another performer with a terrific energy who might well match Jodie for joie de vivre. The first time I was too far away to really pick out individuals, though I certainly did notice that Tom Eddenís Percy Snodgrass was not the only one who fell down in a drunk act, it appeared that several other performers (particularly among the women) did as well. The second time I was vaguely aware of a tall girl falling down drunk under Jodieís skirt. But sitting to one side I couldnít see her face clearly, and somehow managed to completely not realise who it was. Louise Gold lends her power talent and enthusiasm to the ensemble in such a way as to help raise the level of their performance, thus truly helping to give either Tamsin or Jodie one hell of a strong backing chorus for this spectacular number. Chris Bennett and Jay Bryce provide a small diversion as boxers, while Tom Edden, as Percy Snodgrass, among others(the others including Louise Gold, and Cara Elston) bring out the songís darker undercurrent, of Victorian binge drinking (on gin). In a sense this song is a musical theatre version of William Hogarthís illustrations of London a century earlier. Lynne Wilmot as Little Sally also does a nice turn showing an inch or two... My only criticism of this number, was the one ďfrom the countryĒ was played by a man with a cushion up his bum but this was not sufficiently padded, to illustrate the lyric about being ďup a gumtreeĒ. The first time I saw it I recall being very aware that the chorus was coming across just as powerfully as Nancy was. I couldnít understand it, for Tamsin Carrollís a good actress had led the company (well mainly Faginís gang) perfectly well in Itís A Fine Life, so why was she not coming across as strongly in this rousing number, which she is supposed to be leading. The second time I saw the show the same thing happened with Jodie Prenger, perhaps not quite to the same extent, because Jodieís talents are so particularly well suited to this kind of number, but still it was coming across as Nancy And the Ensemble or The Ensemble and Nancy, but not Nancy with the ensemble. It was only thanks to a revelation after seeing the show a second time (from a cast member who shall remain anonymous) that I finally realised why. Nancy was just as powerful and full of presence, energy, and star quality in both numbers. But in Oom Pah Pah it was a much stronger ensemble. With Itís A fine Life, after Rowan Atkinson and Charlotte Spencer, she only had to compete with the children. However, for Oom Pah Pah it is the adult ensemble, that in itself wouldnít have caused this strange effect, except that there were individuals among them whose very presence in it made the ensemble that much stronger. The best example of this is Louise Gold, while I may not have specifically noticed her in it (or at least not realised I had seen her) the first two times I saw it, I was however very aware of the effect of her tremendous stage presence and strong personality.

The third time I saw the show was just amazing. It was like seeing the number anew. This time as soon as the curtains parted I found myself focusing on a tall girl, a drunk sitting at a table in the centre of the stage, who keeps wanting to lay her redhead on the table, which Nancy is kneeling on, right under Nancyís skirt. While Nancy is in a very bright red dress; this drunken-girl is wearing a dress whose top part is a darker red, and whose skirt is a mostly beige-brown pattern (with some red and black in it). The style of the dress really suits the actress. If I hadnít by this time, known who it was, I still donít think Iíd have recognised her. Is it make up? is it the lights? or her own good looks? I donít know, but she looks fifteen to twenty years younger than her actual age. Twice at least, if not more, she lays her head on the table, as if wanting to go to sleep, then at last, perhaps thirsty, she rouses, and automatically takes a little more gin from a tankard-mug. I could see her suddenly brush her hair out of her eyes (a distinctive little mannerism that Louise so often uses herself). Then for some reason ousted from this position she attempts to stand, and ends up falling down on her knees onto the floor. There was a time about twelve years ago where Louise always seemed to be playing characters who somehow ended up on the floor (nice to see that again). Eventually a friend helps her up and at some point she leans over the table, as though gasping, perhaps retching or just trying to clear her head, at another point she seems to find her legs, as the chorus gets to one of itís most intense moments. she jumps up a little (joining in, and trying to keep her balance all at once Ė another movement recognisably in Louiseís own manner Ė like the Skeksis in Dark Crystal that nearly tripped over itís robes). Although she may well have been joining in with some of the choruses of the song before, now all the ensemble join in very loudly, Louise of course is foremost among them, her mouth opened wide (another of her traits) as she joins in the song. And in the middle of this, one thing which really should have been a complete giveaway clue to her identity. Many of the ensemble at this point raise an arm and wave it in time to the music, but most of them do it only for a very short time (blink and youíll miss it), at slightly different moments, with some one arm, maybe some are two. But Louise is very definitely both arms, straight up, firm and strong, and she keeps them up there, swaying to the music, for a lot longer than most, perhaps the whole of this chorus. Of course with most actors their arms would quickly tire in such a position, and in a big West End show such as this, the choreography has to be kept to things they can sustain night after night. The difference with Louise is that she is a very experienced television puppeteer, and as a result has the requisite muscles to sustain that particular position with rather more ease than most actors. The number winds down, the drunk-girl is helped by her friend over to the bar, and takes up a position leaning on it, shortly after this she and her friend (played by Cara Elston) exit (back stage left), as though perhaps going out the back. Iíve never seen Louise Gold act quite like this, itís extraordinary. A wonderful bit part of a character, and a totally convincing drunk, not least because she doesnít go too over the top. She plays the part seriously, and proves what a superb actress she really is; and although she joins in with the song, her basic characterisation is done without the use of words. demonstrating that although she is very good with dialogue, Louise Gold sure does not need words (or even sound) to create a great character. Thatís a true hallmark of a fine actress. Also although actually quite kind of noticeable, she manages not to upstage Nancy. The third time I saw the show, I could only observe the true brilliance of her characterisation by focusing on her performance. If one did not keep such an eye on her, while one would notice some of the bits of her performance one might not even necessarily realise it was all the same character. On reflection I realise that I had sort of noticed that drunk-girl in several the first time I saw the show, itís just with a swirling ensemble I somehow didnít realise it was the same girl each time. Louise has somehow contrived a performance that while stunning (if you specifically watch it) somehow becomes a true part of the ensemble act. Making it an incredibly strong ensemble for this song. Did that harm the song, not in the least, in fact it enhances it. Whoever is playing Nancy has to work that bit harder to shine, but thatís a challenge Jodie Prenger and Tamsin Carroll can rise well enough to. It also helps to make Nancy a more realistic character, because after all although Nancy will entertain her friends with a song, the character is meant to be street-girl, rather than an entertainer. The very strong ensemble also adds so much depth to the number, making it that much more rousing.

The third time I saw the show, I briefly spotted Myra Sands wandering on, as a barmaid, wiping tables. Suddenly the jolly atmosphere changes in a flasher when Dodger enters looking for Fagin. It soon gets even more dramatic with the entrance of Bill Sikes. My Name. Now we see the characterís violent side, to an extent, but still Burn retains a believability that makes the man real, and not say Macavity, though he was tending a little that way the second time I saw it. At this point I was aware of two more girls towards the back of the stage, who are eventually signalled to leave, Iím not sure who they were (although I am sure whoever they were they had been there throughout).The first time I saw it. I found one actually feels quite shocked when Bill hits Nancy in the middle of the pub. Tamsin falls quite dramatically to the floor, and for a moment I almost wondered whether something had gone wrong with the scene. But no, it is meant to be that violent. Shocking it may be, and yet it is absolutely right for the drama of the piece. It sets the scene for the rest of the show. Nancy crawls over to a chair, and pulls herself onto it, to sing another of the great classic songs, As Long As He Needs Me, sitting down. I was truly impressed by Tamsin Carrollís performance. This is one of those songs that has so often been done to death. But to hear it in its original context brings so much more to it. This song is in the same canon as, and on a par with Kern and Hammersteinís Canít Help Loviní Dat Man, as a great musical theatre torch song.The way the number has been staged in this production helps a lot with that.The second and third time I saw it, Jodie Prenger fell to the floor dramatically, but, I donít know if itís because I was sitting nearer the stage, or because I knew the show better, it seemed more obviously part of the script. There was good interplay between her and Bet (with Bet coming across very much as her friend rather than sister), as she reassured Bet ďIím alrightĒ. The quick change in atmosphere did not seem to quite suite Jodie Prengerís acting talents. Although she sang the classic song well, she seemed to do it with less pain than Tamsin had done. Fortunately for Jodie most of the audience are routing for her to succeed, and she gets the song across reasonably well. Itís not bad. Itís just knowing that there really good actors who can cope rather better with having to change the style and atmosphere in a scene at the drop of a hat (the best Iíve ever seen being an actor portraying a schizophrenic armed robber in an episode of East Enders). Jodie doesnít seem to quite have the ability to change with the atmosphere too quickly as yet, though it may come with experience. Jodieís performance of this number is by no means bad, I have heard some truly awful renditions of it. Jodieís is actually one of the better ones, itís just not quite as in character at that moment as Tamsinís It suits the character alright, just not quite perfect for that point in the show.

 

A complete contrast, is the refined sunshine of The Brownlow Residence. Just when we thought there couldnít be any more surprises and contrasts in this production, we get another one. The stage hands lower down a platform on which is Oliver in bed, and sitting by the side of it is Mrs Bedwin (Mr Browlowís housekeeper) singing a truly beautiful reprise of Where Is Love. That big powerful yet also beautiful and sweet voice soars into the rafters of Theatre Royal Drury Lane. I couldnít help noticing the tall cuddly actress singing it. Even though itís a quieter character, there is a certain stage presence about her, something about her acting style one canít help noticing her. With very tidy hair (and I wasnít sure did she have a greying wig over her red hair or not), I almost didnít recognise her the first time (though it was subsequently obvious). But that peculiar presence, her height, and her exquisite singing voice just gives away Louise Gold.A complete contrast to her named role in Act 1. Professional productions of Oliver! do not, it seems, usually double up the roles of Mrs Sowerberry and Mrs Bedwin, yet with as versatile and brilliant an actress as Louise, itís a remarkably good idea. I do hope they let her keep this extra named part.It also gives her a wonderful rare opportunity to play a nice character. (It makes a pleasant change from Baroness Bomeburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and, Ms Andrew in Mary Poppins). Louise again demonstrates her winning ability to deliver lines memorably, as she dresses Oliver in a new suit, he queries this, and is told ďWell you canít wear your old clothes theyíre in the furnaceĒ . Her reply is spoken in a clipped received English accent, not quite as classy as the voice she uses for The Queen (on Spitting Image), but similar (and similar too to a certain actress in the film Bleak Moments). Louise Gold has a lot of stage presence, but as soon as Julian Glover enters, he proves he is more than capable of withstanding that, heís encountered this kind of stage presence before (at Unity); when it comes to acting style Louise is her motherís daughter. Itís lovely too see two such brilliant actors on stage together, they seem to connect so well, a very convincing as a gentleman and his loyal housekeeper who has known him for years. They bring an added poignancy to Mr Brownlowís recognition of Oliver.

Julian Bleach also does well as Dr Grimwig, though he has a hard time making his presence felt. Fortunately he is sensible not to take the comedy of his part too far.

Oliver, dressed nicely, out in the square sings the classic Who Will Buy along with the street sellers. Itís good to see this done professionally, with the chorus all in great costumes I particularly liked the Fortnum & Masonís deliverers). I was a little worried by presence of some brightly coloured balloons, afraid the show might degenerate into being too much like a silly pantomime set (like Chitty did after the Fairground scene was reworked). Fortunately this production does not do this. On seeing it a third time I also managed to spot Wendy Ferguson pushing a pram, and Lynne Wilmot somewhere in the scene.

In a flash the atmosphere changes as Nancy enters, followed by Bet and Bill, and drags Oliver away. Nancy enters wearing a red and black blanket as a shawl, which she puts over Oliver. Interestingly, I had always thought Bet to be Nancyís friend, but it suddenly occurred to me watching this production (at least when Tamsin was playing Nancy) that they might be related, could Bet be a daughter? or a small sister?

††††††††††† Back at the Thieves kitchen, a segment I donít remember from the amateur productions, when having got Oliver back, Nancy, Fagin, Sikes and Dodger sing a bitter reprise of Itís A Fine Life. Suddenly Nancy begins to heroically stand up to them, coming between them and Oliver. It is here that Jodie Prenger comes into her own as Nancy. Tamsin Carroll plays Nancy well here. But Jodie is quite something. She really can act angry. You begin to sense something about Nancy and Billís relationship, Nancy isnít necessarily that meek and submissive. Sometimes she can be quite tough when she is roused. Bart has put something very clever, worthy of Charles Dickens, in Nancyís lines in this scene. Many of the ďbad unsĒ (thieves and prostitutes) are to some extent victims of at some point finding themselves in desperate destitute circumstances.They didnít necessarily go that way by choice, they might not have had much choice. If you want to look at this show at a deeper level than just a feel good musical, then this is the scene to pay attention to.

Fagin sends everyone away. finishing with the words ďand Iíll look after myselfĒ. Thereby leaving him along on the stage Reviewing The Situation. Vocally Rowan Atkinson may not be quite Ron Moody or Jonathan Pryce, and he has chosen to interpret this classic song in his own way, a wise move, as it this helps him to make it pretty much his own, with perhaps a dash of BlackAdder or Mr Bean; but best of all bringing out the Klezmer influence of the music. The piece de resistance in the staging however, is the ending, ďBut who will change the scene for me?Ē he sings, and bang on cue that is exactly what the scene shifters do. The lyric actually reminded me, that it is said in his Unity Theatre days, Bart himself often used to paint scenery (as well as writing lyrics). The second and third time I saw the show it also made me think of some comments of Cameron Mackinstoshís in the programme (concerning scenery). Interestingly some recordings of this song (such as Julian Forsythís on one studio cast album) ended with a different lyric ďWho will change the plot for me?Ē I think the scene ending is much more fitting.

Back at the workhouse, Mr Bumble and Widow Corney have come to an agreement, being by now unhappily married, and still acting rather over the top. Myra Sands gets another nice little piece as the Matron, pushing Old Sally on in a wheelchair, Susan Fay does well with her little scene as the dying woman confessing to having stolen the locket from Agnes. The second and third time I saw it her death scene was made more O. T. T, with Wendy Ferguson grabbing her, and then letting her fall to the floor (to by carted away by a male ensemble member, rather than having Myra wheel her off).

The programme does not list another scene at The Brownlow residence. Mr Brownlow (and his housekeeper) receive two sets of visitors, the first being Mr and Mrs Bumble. Here we can really see the sharp contrast between the complete conviction with which Julian Glover and Louise Gold inhabit their roles to that of Julius De Silva and Wendy Fergusson, who still didnít quite convince me.They exited being sort of shown out by the housekeeper, and I couldnít help noticing the way whenever she exits (as this character) Arts Ed trained Louise Gold gives a very graceful curtsy.On realising that Oliver is in fact his daughter Agnesís son, Julian Gloverís Mr Brownlow, is quite touching telling his housekeeper of this. Mrs Bedwin is even more moving saying (of Agnes) ďIf only sheíd told usĒ.I couldnít help thinking (yes if Agnes had confided in the nice Housekeeper, some solution might have been found). Mr Brownlow comes across as rather innocently naive in the cruelties of the world, this is particularly apparent when he receives a visit from Nancy. The scene could be quite unconvincing, yet somehow Julian Glover along with either Tamsin Carroll or Jodie Prenger pull this off, slightly differently, Tamsin plays it with more awe of the rich, but Jodie with more spunk. Bart (perhaps drawing on his writing backgrounds of IYC, Unity Theatre, and, Stratford East) has managed to script this carefully and convincingly, and the two actors make it sound believable. They are aided and abetted in this by Louise Gold as Mrs Bedwin, who comes across as rather more understanding of Nancyís predicament.

Somewhere in the City Streets a reprise of As Long As He Needs me. Tamsin sings it as haunting reprise, whereas Jodie sings it as an angry reprise. Both versions work very well, each suiting the individual actress best.

Around London Bridge, we have Bill club Nancy to death (behind a pillar Ė so we donít actually see him hit her). This almost off-stage violence actually makes it all the more shocking, if subtly so. A short while later the scene shifters have moved the parquet and pillar, so the audience is now seeing what the passers-by on the bridge, and Julian Gloverís Mr Browlow (who has just entered) can see. We share the shock over several passers by, including Bet, who see that Nancy has been murdered (and some of them have a pretty good idea who has done it too), this leads into The Chase, this is an orchestral piece, but most of the company are involved somewhere. Bill Sikes has got Oliver, and is pursued by the police, plus various others. Meanwhile Fagin is also on the run, and dropping his precious jewels by mistake into the river Thames. This is both dramatic and touching at the same time. At last Bill is cornered and shot from a roof top by a policeman. Oliver is helped down, and practically collapses into the arms of a man, when at last heís back on his feet, he practically runs to Mrs Bedwin (whose almost rushed to him), who gives him a very motherly sort of hug (slightly shades of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby in Jason Carrís musical of The Waterbabies). Perhaps appropriately Julian Glover gets the last word, as Mr Brownlow says to Oliver that they are going to take him home.

We come to Faginís reprise of Reviewing The Situation. In many versions, this has been sung in a prison cell. However in this production the setting is ambiguous, a cobbled area, it could be a street or a passage, itís not clear. Fagin enters from steps at the front of the stage (near the pit). At the numberís conclusion Rowan Atkinson walks off into the lamplight down the cobbles towards the back of the stage. The character could be dreaming, or he could really be setting off for pastures new, itís not clear. Yet the image is powerful, a sense of hope for this rogue, and also a reminder that Fagin may well be an immigrant, and perhaps he is going to move on elsewhere. And for those who want to look deeper, it may also provoke questions about the treatment of immigrants and outcasts, which could drive people to crime.

It remains for all the company to take a nice bow. They all look fairly pleasant about it. Burn Gorman gets hissed, a bit, of course, but everyone else is applauded. Julian Bleach is dressed as his Act 1 character, Mr Sowerberry, but Louise Gold takes hers as Mrs Bedwin, how lovely. Even more delightfully she is standing between Julian Bleach and Julian Glover, just perfect positioning. The second and third time I saw the show, as the curtain calls came to an end, I could distinctly see Louise poised for action, bouncing on her feet, giving several distinctive little jumps up and down (reminiscent not only of the way she jumped a little in Panama Hattie, but also of a little movement her Dark Crystal Skeksis did). Itís soon apparent why she is so poised. The entire cast launch into a reprise of the classic Consider Yourself. And what a treat to have Louise Gold (in her actresses guise) as part of a group singing this song, which some thirty one and a half years ago (on her first proper day on the job as a muppeteer), she almost certainly sang backing vocals on. Finally the cast exit with the orchestra playing the tune (which should be pretty familiar to Julian Glover, at least) that of Be Back Soon.

 

It has been said that writing this musical took Lionel Bart back to his roots in the East End of London. This particular production brings several other people back to some part of their roots. Besides Cameron Mackintosh coming back to the start of his theatrical career, there is also a sense of Julian Glover going back to where he started as a grown up actor. Louise Gold is another, in her case back to the roots of her very existence.

††††††††††† One of the few complaints I would level at this production, are in fact some notable omissions from the resume of Lionel Bart himself, along with some lack of research and a certain dismissive tone in James Inverneís article about him, in the programme. Yes for some of the other personnel there are notable credits that have been left out of their resumes, but space is limited. However Bart was the showís author, it is always especially identified with him and he with it. The resume for Bart starts with his pop song writing and then his Stratford East work, completely omitting any mention of his theatre writing prior to Lock Up Your Daughters. (As his early work included Wally Pone, amongst other slightly less well known pieces that is something of an omission). He didnít spring full formed as merely a pop-song-writer crossing over to theatre work in 1959. That however may be just an oversight. James Inverneís article does touch briefly on Bartís pre-Stratford East theatre work, but cites it as merely ďlocal revuesĒ. That description might have just about been alright for the International Youth Centre. But to dismiss the work (and Bartís contributions to it) of the mighty and legendary Unity Theatre (London) as ďlocal revuesĒ is rather unjust. Especially when the cast of this show includes at least two people with notable connections to Bartís Unity Theatre work.

Knowing how durable this show is, I had wondered whether a professional production would be a bonus. Well the chief advantages are that all the characters are played by actors who have about the right playing ages for the parts they are playing. The children are totally brilliant, particularly with regards to their dancing, real professionals. Then on the acting side so many of the rather minor principals come across that much more effectively when played by skilled professionals, characters such as the Sowerberrys, make more of an impact. In addition because this is in a big theatre, we have a large amazing set. It may have caused a few difficulties for the production, but it is pretty impressive. Of course for this musical a huge impressive set is not strictly necessary, but it does add something to this production. Generally the actors did pretty well, the first time I saw Laurence Jeffercoat as Oliver, and Tamsin Carroll as Nancy. Both played well. Likewise on seeing Harry Stott as Oliver and later Gwion Wyn Jones as Oliver, both with Jodie Prenger as Nancy. There were moments (particularly during some of Nancyís songs) where I felt that Graham Hurman took the orchestra too fast, not giving the audience enough time to enjoy the lyrics. Tamsin Carroll and Jodie Prenger did their best, with them, their diction ainít bad, (in fact they have very good diction) but if the songs had been a touch slower they could have sounded better. The boys playing Dodger also all did well. Though to my mind Robert Madge was particularly outstanding. The Bumblesí were I felt camped up a little too much, but thatís just my opinion. During the previews most of the cast were already playing to a very high standard, as one would expect from a West End production. People like Rowan Atkinson, Julian Glover, Louise Gold, Julian Bleach, Tamsin Carroll, and Myra Sands are clearly the kind of performers who will turn out a good fairly polished performance even in previews. Burn Gorman was the only one whose performance showed a marked improvement after the opening. Of course I did not see Jodie Prenger in the preview performance, but when I did see her I felt her to be well deserving of her prize. Yes there were one or two rough spots with her acting, but these were pretty minor (such as wandering off accent), the energy and enthusiasm she puts into her performance makes up for that. I hope we see her in more musicals in the future. As for her figure, well if Kim Criswell, Jenny Galloway, and, Imelda Staunton can be successful in musicals, why not Jodie Prenger? Come to think of it I wouldnít mind seeing Jodie attempt such classics as the title role in Annie Get Your Gun, or possibly Adelaide in Guys And Dolls; and well Iím sure there are other musical theatre roles that could suit her just as well as Nancy does. Given her spunky engaging performance one might almost consider her as a possible Eliza in My Fair Lady, though Iím not sure if her cockney accent would be quite good enough for that. Her accent is fine for playing Nancy in Oliver! Itís just that for My Fair Lady the accents really do have to be spot on.

The other major star of the show is of course Rowan Atkinson, yes there were times one couldnít help being aware that this is the guy who played BlackAdder, but there were also moments where I found myself so caught up with watching the character of Fagin and the situation he was in that I almost forgot it was Rowan Atkinson playing him, he made the character so real. His performance was marginally off the third time, but that could have been the snowy weather, and it really was only very slight and if one had not seen it before one would not have noticed it. Making a character very real, was something several other people excelled out, all three boys I had seen play Oliver achieved this, as did Burn Gorman more or less, and another person who nearly made one forget it was her was Louise Gold (although I could never quite forget it was her as Mrs Sowerberry and Mrs Bedwin, however well she acted them. But then there is that brilliant bit part of a Drunk-Girl where I actually didnít recognise her twice!).

Another element of this production that really stands out, is the shear scale of it. This could only have been done with a major professional production. Theatre Royal Drury Lane is one of the largest of the big West End theatres, and yet somehow Cameron Mackintosh has managed to cram that enormous stage full to almost bursting. Having a load of scenery, of the type we have come to expect when a show uses ďMackintosh machineryĒ, is very impressive, and ultimately adds to the show, making it feel more real. Onto that scenery we have a large cast, with lots of clever staging, such that whenever the ensemble are on stage they are all distinct individuals, each busy with their own piece of stage action. The ensemble in these places, such as during Oom Pah Pah, Consider Yourself, and the Act 1 finale, also finds several minor principals popping up as part of it, although trying to spot them, or indeed any individual performer among them, is, well, very difficult indeed. Such is the richness with which the stage is filled with characters, that one is hard put to know where to look. One canít see everything. I think one probably sees a slightly different show if one sits in different places in the auditorium. There are many shows where if one sees it once, one knows one has taken the bulk of it in, and after a second viewing one just knows one has probably covered it pretty thoroughly. But this show just isnít like that. Even twice is not enough to take it all in. Three times is just about enough, but only just. And I know even this review can not cover this extraordinary production as fully as I would have hoped. Itís too big and overwhelming a spectacle, with so much action, and such an amazing crowd of individuals. Itís hard to keep track of, let alone describe.

Overall it is a fantastic production. Yes there are some bits which arenít quite the way one might expect, there are also a few minor points which might possibly be improved (most notably the speed at which some of Nancyís numbers are performed). But on the whole itís a fine show, with a generally pretty good cast, to do it justice. Amazing set, good choreography, splendid orchestrations, mostly decent acting, plus a number of famous names (such as Rowan Atkinson, Julian Glover, and, Jodie Prenger), along with a good few musical theatre stalwarts; But one added bonus which just gives this production an extra lift is the wonderful inclusion of a very special bundle of talent courtesy of the book-writers from Bartís Agit Prop Cinderella.

 

This production, seems to have a lot of energy. (Just the sort of thing big West End shows need). Letís hope they can maintain that energy level. Two performers in particular stand out as really helping to uphold the energy level, they are Jodie Prenger, and, Louise Gold. In David Roperís biography of Lionel Bart, one of Bartís IYC pals describes Bartís rapid creativity with the words ďhe was like a firework exploding in all directions all the timeĒ. Well it seems fitting to note that somehow in their performances in Bartís masterpiece, as musical theatre singer-actresses Jodie Prenger and Louise Gold both manage to turn out performances that sparkle with a vivacity and zest for life, that might also be compared to fireworks..

The show itself is like a big rich diverse fruitcake, and the icing on the cake, in fact, is finding ever versatile Louise Gold surprisingly well used, even if she is ostensibly a minor principal. In this show she manages to demonstrate just how varied an actress she is, and what a very wide playing-age range she has! The first time I saw the show, one of the biggest surprises was finding her playing Mrs Bedwin, a lovely character, and this teams her with Julian Glover, thereby bringing his career almost full circle (to Turn It Up). I do hope Ms Gold gets to keep the double named role, doing both like this plays so well to her considerable versatility as an actress. Mrs Sowerberry is the kind of character we might normally expect to find Louise Gold playing. In her experienced hands a great comedy character, with a strong dash of Jewish-style vivacity (the character isnít Jewish, it just has that kind of liveliness), surely very appropriate for a Lionel Bart musical. In effect Louise has given the character a bit of her own larger than life personality. Mrs Bedwin is not the sort of role one might initially expect to find such a mazilk as Louise Gold acting. However, she also has a great deal of subtly as an actress, and in fact suits the role very well. To her Louise seems to have given the character her own kind friendly nature. Or has she given her a dash of the warm personality of the legendary stalwart who greeted Lionel Bart when he and a friend first auditioned at Unity Theatre (for The Wages Of Eve)? Who knows? However sheís found that character it really does suit her. In fact she seems very Ďat homeí playing both her major roles. And then there is the brilliant bonus of her contributions to the ensemble. These not only display her considerable versatility, even if one does not always notice her directly, she also brings some, probably much needed, extra strength to the ensemble, which in turn may also improve the performances of the other principals because if they are worthy of their parts then theyíve jolly well got to prove it with that powerful ensemble around. When Louise is popping up in the ensemble, surprisingly, for such a magnificent individual, sheís managed to act so well as to fit well in with the ensemble, even when doing her own little bits as an individual member of it, she might be considered to be part of the furniture. One of the most versatile and talented performers currently to be found in West End musicals, she seems to be an illustration of another Unity Theatre lyric ďtake an actress, take a singer, take a dancer, and thereís your answer, itís a girlĒ. In Consider Yourself she merges into the action like a real trouper.In the Act 1 Finale she has a delightful role to play. But of all these three parts, her tour de force is in Oom Pah Pah. She does a very convincing job as a drunk, not least because she doesnít go over the top, she just plays it with complete believability and subtlety. I actually didnít know just how skilful an actress she really is, until I saw this triumph of her acting abilities. Although Iíve seen her do a drunk act once before in a musical (Panama Hattie), this is quite different. Itís an amazing performance, and one I didnít know she was capable of. As an actress she should have every reason to be very proud of what she has achieved with that character. I always thought that Louise Gold was someone you just couldnít put into a very minor role, and that as an ensemble member she would always stick out like a tomato in a box of asparagus; because sheís go so much stage presence and such a powerful voice and personality. Yet in this production she has proved that actually when she is truly one of the family in an ensemble, she will not necessarily stick out, she is capable of turning her extraordinary power so that it benefits the ensemble she is a member of. She is a remarkable performer to have found a home in this amazing production. Helen Taylor when reviewing Noel/Cole: Letís Do It once said ďLouise Gold might have been designed for musicals...Ē, well if thatís the case, then this is one show (and various roles in it) she might have been born to play.

 

 

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