Oliver // Theatre Royal Norwich, 05.07.12
Jaunty pickpockets, singing wenches, threatening thieves and one saintly orphan; ‘Oliver’ is a show full of songs and characters everyone knows, especially because of the 1968 film version with Ron Moody. As well loved as it is, it might seem like a challenge to create a show that still seems fresh but I’m happy to report that this latest UK tour of Lionel Bart’s hit musical ‘Oliver!’ is sheer pleasure from start to finish. The production values are sky high, the sets are fantastic, the choreography is lively and infectious and every performance is slick and lively, down to the smallest urchin.
Iain Fletcher was menacing and moody as Bill Sikes, with a real sense of physical threat about him. Cat Simmons gave us a Nancy with both sex appeal and a tender heart. A particular highlight was seeing her stand on top of a beer barrel conducting the drunken madness of the raucous song ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’. As Oliver, Harry Polden managed to be charming but with enough attitude to avoid the sickly sweet pitfalls of the part. Meanwhile the actors in smaller roles were equally committed performers, making their parts eccentric and memorable. I particularly enjoyed the melodramatic Mrs Sowerberry played by CJ Johnson, a comic gem of a performance.
The (blackened) heart of the production was Brian Conley who played the sly Fagin, king of the thieves. I must admit I’ve got a soft spot for Brian Conley, having grown up with his Saturday night entertainment show in the nineties (‘Septic Peg’ anyone? ‘It’s a puppet’? No? Just me then). His physicality is great, creeping and shuffling one moment then excitedly leaping up the next at the sight of some stolen bounty. His comedy experience really came to the fore as the audience hung on every word of ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and ‘Reviewing the Situation’, as well as comedy asides he managed to make sound off the cuff.
What impressed most of all was the scale of the show, especially obvious in the street settings of ‘Consider Yourself’ and ‘Who Will Buy?’ The stage was brimful with London life, street performers, washerwomen, policemen and market sellers all weaving around and dancing in unison. The set designers (Totie Driver and Adrian Vaux) managed to create a sense of spectacle as the darkened streets slid back to reveal a backdrop of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was the perfect example of how ambitious and enjoyable this production was. With a month long run that finishes on the 4th of August I would heartily recommend this show to anyone who wanted to see a big, bold and unashamedly fun show.