OLIVER! by Lionel Bart
Jigsaw Stage Productions
The Beacon, Portway, Wantage OX12 9BX
4-7 April 2018
Cornerstone Arts Centre, 25 Station Road, Didcot, OX11 7NE
26-28 April 2018
Lionel Bart's musical version of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist premiered in London's West End in 1960 and has been drawing large and enthusiastic audiences ever since.
When I spoke to director Gill Morgan ten days before the opening night, she described it as containing 'music that everyone knows' and 'a toe-tapping show'. If this production was meant as a crowd-pleaser, then the verdict comes in two words: mission accomplished. The crowd on the evening I attended was indeed well pleased.
Jigsaw Stage Productions had two teams of children, who alternated between performances. On the Saturday night I was there, Team 1 was on stage. Opening a show is never an easy task, but the orphans made a generally confident start with their rendition of Food Glorious Food. A slight quibble in an otherwise solid first number – the first word of several lines was lost – a result of nerves, I'd say.
The production took off for me with the duet between Mr Bumble and Widow Corney (Paul Bowers and Karen Brind), I Shall Scream!, where the beadle, starved of physical affection, attempts to plight his troth to the amply-resourced widow. We saw some lovely comic moments from both performers.
We also had some nice characterisation from Mr Sowerberry the undertaker (Charlie East) and Mrs Sowerberry (Chris Jones) who take in Oliver as an apprentice and treat him appallingly, but the musical number that ends the scene (That's Your Funeral) was a little lacking in energy for my taste. A bit more oomph was needed.
The stage then emptied leaving Oliver (Thomas Hulme) alone to sing Where Is Love? I was impressed by the performance of this young actor, who brought the requisite pathos to the part. The other main children's part, of course, is the Artful Dodger and Felix Potter made a strong start in the role with his rendition of Consider Yourself. Praise too to Karen Brind for choreographing the dance routine that followed (and for many other numbers in the show, particularly Who Will Buy?) as well as to her dancers.
Edmund Bennett clearly relished his role as Fagin and gave us a rogue with a warm, avuncular affection for his gang of thieves. Pick a Pocket or Two came over well as a parlour game for the benefit of the newly arrived Oliver, and his final song Reviewing the Situation saw Edmund doing justice to what is a difficult song to perform, both in technical terms and comic interpretation.
Fagin lives in fear of Bill Sikes, and hardly surprising when played as a brutal, irredeemable thug by Chris Palmer. There is nothing good to be said about the character of Sikes: he is a criminal, he beats his wife, is possessed of a demonic malevolence, and glories in the fear that the mere mention of his name brings to others. Chris brought a brooding physicality to the role and made us believe he was truly a nasty bit of work. I particularly enjoyed his performance of the song My Name!
For me, the three best numbers in Jigsaw's production were It's a Fine Life, Oom-pah-pah and As Long as He Needs Me. Not by coincidence did they all include Helena Kerswell playing Nancy, who gave a truly fantastic musical performance (my goodness, that gal can sing...and act the songs!). It's a Fine Life lifted the show to a higher level and As Long as He Needs Me was given the sympathy and gusto so vital to a torch song such as this. It drew loud cheers from the audience and deservedly so.
Congratulations are due to the other members of the cast, young and old, all of whom contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable performance of a well known and well-loved show, into which director Gill Morgan injected a dose of freshness. On a practical note, the cast doubled up as stage hands, shifting scenery and props as soon as they had stepped off stage (no black-clad stage ninjas for Jigsaw). The arrangement worked well with no hiccups that this reviewer could see.
A final pat on the back goes to musical director Jevan Johnson Booth and other members of the band who gave a professional sound to an amateur production.
Oliver! transfers to Didcot's Cornerstone Arts Centre at the end of April. Get yourself a ticket if you want to give your evening a bit of oom-pah-pah!
Photo copyright Howard Hill
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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