With its cracking tunes, brilliant lyrics, gripping story and range of characters, Oliver! is a natural favourite among amateur musical theatre societies. But those of us who are long enough in both the tooth and the memory will recall that when the show first hit the West End, what was talked about most was Sean Kenny’s set design. With its multiple revolves and levels, it was ideally suited to the episodic nature of the story; in fact, it is on record that much of the show was re-written during rehearsals to make best use of a set which was unlike anything that London had ever seen.
Therein lies the problem. The stage has to be transformed in short order from a thieves’ kitchen to a bustling street scene to an elegant Bloomsbury drawing room to London Bridge, and no amateur group has either the resources or the size of theatre to do it both slickly and credibly. Having seen many different solutions tried, I can say that Swanage Musical Theatre’s comes as close to success as any: a background of indeterminate brick with a narrow space on which different images can be displayed on a backcloth, a bridge with varying levels and, below, a space that can be converted comparatively easily by the addition of a few props. It is complemented by some superb lighting design from Thomas Curtis which helps enormously in changing the atmosphere between the different settings.
It is also true that any inherent problems in the set are easier to ignore if the performances are good enough, and these keep up the very high standard for which this society has become known. Director Brenda Ridout has always been particularly good at directing and enthusing children, so from the metronomic entrance of the workhouse kids, that aspect is in safe hands. The adult chorus does not have a lot to do but grabs its opportunity in ‘Consider yourself’, where the choreography is busy rather than ambitious – again, it is a number that cries out for a larger stage – and with some gorgeous singing in ‘Who will buy’.
Among the principals, Gabriel Christmas gives a promising and apparently nerveless performance as Oliver. During ‘Where is love’, I normally sympathise with the young actor who is given such a nerve-wracking song so early in the piece, but here, because it is so well sung and acted, my sympathies were where they should be: with the character.
Catherine Attridge as Nancy is an excellent actress and makes a strong impression in act 1 with ‘It’s a fine life’ and ‘I’d do anything’, so it is surprising that although her big act 2 number, ‘As long as he needs me’, showcases her lovely voice, there are depths of emotion in the song that she doesn’t quite reach.
Brian Travers brings out all the conflicting aspects of Fagin’s character with great skill. He achieves the most important thing in playing the role, which is to capture the audience’s sympathy even though we know that Fagin is a terrible old rogue. Nowhere is this truer than in ‘Reviewing the situation’: to say that he dominates the stage sounds daft, because there is no-one else on it, but it is true nevertheless. In his dialogue, a half-and-half Jewish accent does present – most uncharacteristically – a few audibility problems.
One of the greatest strengths of the production is the performances in the supporting roles: Mike Hill as Mr Bumble, Julia Gadenne as Widow Corney, Danny Seldon as Noah Claypole, Manon Memmi-Weir as the Artful Dodger, Adrian Lane as a really scary Bill Sikes and Miro Vosper as a sweet Bet are genuinely outstanding.
The first night saw a rare phenomenon: a chock-full Mowlem auditorium. It was no less than this excellent production deserved, and it should be repeated at subsequent performances: 7 April at 7.30 and 8 April at 2.30 and 7.30.