Oliver! Review

Sell-out show ‘best in years’

By Elizabeth Udall 

Oliver! has become one of the best-known and best-loved musicals since its premiere 49 years ago and its current London production crashed into the West End on the tsunami of attention that came with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC talent search I’d Do Anything.

So when Lionel Bart’s music struck up for the Ashbeian Musical Theatre Group’s 2009 production at Ivanhoe College in Ashby and the spotlight joined the workhouse children’s rhythmic trudge to the stage, there’s no doubt there was a weight of anticipation on the young cast’s shoulders.

But there was no need to worry. “Is this worth the waiting for…?” the workhouse children sing in the show’s opening song and the answer is a resounding, Yes.

Dancing on Ice judge and West End star Ruthie Henshall had sent good wishes but the cast had plenty of star quality of their own.

All six shows sold out and its success gained momentum with each performance. People who saw it were so desperate to come back for more that they were adding their names to an already creaking waiting list for tickets.

Food Glorious Food launched us into the show with an outstanding feat of choreography, vocals, music and performance that set the tone.

Old favourites like Consider Yourself, Oom-Pah-Pah and Who Will Buy? saw the adult cast shine while the children in Fagin’s Gang proved more than a match. It wasn’t their number that gave them stage presence but truly polished performances that crackled with charisma.

Emily Watson filled Nancy’s As Long As He Needs Me with pathos and power and when her other half, Bill Sykes (Chris Head), appeared framed in the door of The Three Cripples pub he dripped menace before he had even announced himself with a growlingly aggressive My Name.

Fagin (Keith Reynolds) hunched and twisted his way through a breathless Reviewing The Situation, only one highlight in a triumphant performance.

Oliver (George Welton) produced a sound so angelic that his Where Is Love? cannot have failed to pull at every heart string in the house while Matthew Brown was truly stunning as Dodger. And his was not the only impressive comic touch of the evening. Fagin made us smile throughout, especially when he impatiently urged one of his primary school age gang to “Drink your gin” while Widow Corney (Jane Thomas) clutching a struggling Mr Bumble (Jim Draper) to her cleavage was only one of many laughs from a superb double act.

Ryan Gordon and Charlotte Swarbrick, who shared the Oliver and Dodger roles for half the performances, were also said to have excelled.

From the thin gruel slopped into the children’s bowls in the workhouse to their grey rags and bare feet, the dusty top hats to frayed velvet frock coats and the smoky tavern to the brilliant sunset of the final tableau, the attention to detail in the sets, lighting and costumes– many made by Winnie Meadows – was astounding.

Deborah Wilson’s choreography, which would not have been out of place on a West End stage, encouraged some fantastic footwork from the cast and Howard Marriott’s musical direction drew breathtaking solo and ensemble performances as well as an extremely accomplished orchestral accompaniment.

Much of the credit for marshalling the phenomenal talent in this show has to go to David McKnight. His professional stage background was in evidence throughout with his assured direction of an AMTG performance which was, by all accounts, one of the best in recent years.

Where do I sign my name for next year’s reserve ticket list?

Elizabeth Udall is an author and national newspaper and magazine journalist for The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, Evening Standard, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Grazia amongst many others.