Oliver at the BGET

October 28, 2013


When I was a tyke I drove my parents demented by continually bursting into the gin soaked melodies of an orphan turned millionaire who escapes the clutches of negligent care to find happiness. It wasn’t Oliver. It was Annie, whose cute quips, wisecracking fellow foundlings and the boozehound singleton Mrs. Hannigan fed my inner drag queen. Oliver I found that little bit too quaint, even as a child. And the character himself left me cold.

Cameron Mackintosh’s revival at the BGE Theatre is one of the best productions to come to the venue. Recent shows have been underwhelming by their very nature (the book to a jukebox musical never allows for a strong emotional thread) and fiber (third rate celebrities in shows at deaths door). But Oliver! has terrific production values, a solid cast and a great set of songs for the audience to sing along to.

But that quaintness remains a deterrent to lovers of the form rather than lovers of a good night out. While it was never going to reinvent the wheel, director Laurence O’Connor has removed even more spokes so that the cutesy child stars are allowed to jazz hand at the expense of the darker themes of starvation, corruption and inappropriate man-child relationships.

While its worth the price of admission alone to feel the power of Matthew Bourne’s choreography in group numbers, where he brings the city of London to life against Totie Driver and Adrian Vaux’s pop-up book scenic design, it’s a pity that the directors of song and dance shows no longer want to channel their power to speak about the greater injustices that should charge the songs.

Neither Lionel Bart’s original work nor this revival seem interested in paying heed to the raging social anger of Dickens source text. But as a critic there’s a sense of screaming for black when what we’re given is white about all this. As mindless Christmas fare this grabbed the audience, hook, line and sinker and you would have to be a corpse not to be moved at the sight of a never-ending stream of orphans being fired from behind a statue until the whole stage is filled with all ages for a rousing rendition of Consider Yourself.

Nancy’s death won’t make any tots tear up, yet the strength of Samantha Barks delivery certainly impresses on the shows emotional core As Long As He Needs Me. And while there’s no real sense of pedophilic malevolence or confliction to Neil Morrissey’s Fagin, his experience as a comic actor means he at least keeps the audience laughing. And he hasn’t the worst voice in the world.

That being said a more general concern about the venues acoustics needs to be again addressed. In the more recent ANGLO: The Musical a home grown cast without the experience of performing in such large houses were rendered largely inaudible. The same problem fells the kids in the choral numbers here and even more experienced actors, like the wonderful Jack Edwards and Claire Machin as Mr. Bumble and The Widow Cornet struggle to be heard early on. For shows like Mamma Mia! and Dirty Dancing, where audiences know the story off, this might not be the worst thing. But for the aforementioned Anglo or shows like Avenue Q, where it’s the clever wordplay and not the vocal acrobatics that provide the productions money shot, it can be disastrous.

Oliver! really can’t fail though. The simple appearance of the childers is greeted with manic levels of ‘Ohhhhhh’ and ‘Ahhhh’ before they even open their mouths and director O’Connor seems satisfied enough with this response so he doesn’t push them further. However if proof were needed for how it succeeds its seen in the reverent silence of the younger audience members throughout. There is a joy in seeing a musical that doesn’t take a half-assed approach to the meat and potatoes of the form (the singing, dancing and acting) nor to its gravy (costumes, set). This production is fully fleshed if it is a little soulless.

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