Why do some composers turn out a string of successful musicals, while others will go down in history as ‘one-hit wonders’? The one-hit wonder to top them all is Lionel Bart. Blitz! bombed and Twang! failed to hit its target, but before that he had written one of the most popular musicals of the 20th century in Oliver!. This very enjoyable production shows just why it is so popular not only with the paying public (I have never seen the Barrington so full) but with the performers – the fun they are having flows off the stage and across the audience.
The tone is set early on, with the entrance of the workhouse children through the audience, in perfect step and with heads bowed. The children’s chorus is one of the stars of the show and they are spectacularly well-drilled, especially musically. Given their numbers, it is surprising that their singing does not have more volume, but that will no doubt come with increased confidence. The important thing is that some of them are probably performing in public for the first time and will have caught the stage bug, which can last their lifetime and give them so much pleasure.
It is a less exciting show for the adult chorus, but they take their opportunities like ‘Oom-pah-pah’ enthusiastically. Although the small stage hardly helps, it is a pity that the choreography of the biggest chorus number, ‘Consider yourself’, does not involve much more than moving on the spot.
In the title role (for two nights; on the others it is played by Sam Campbell Marsh), James Clark not only acts well but has a lovely, pure voice. ‘Where is love’ makes almost impossible demands on breath control, but James’s performance of it is genuinely moving.
Lee Neal’s interpretation of Fagin is interesting: a younger and slightly more camp version than the ones we may be used to. It works well when conveying the ambivalence in the role – Fagin is an out and out villain but genuinely cares for his gang of small boys. It works less well in ‘I’m reviewing the situation’, when it verges on the pantomimic and robs the character of its authority and command of the stage.
As Bill Sikes, Michael Leggett is genuinely scary, especially in his big number, ‘My name’. The cockney accents are well maintained by all the cast throughout, but his is the only one that makes him difficult to hear at times. Alfie Matthews gives a perky performance as the Artful Dodger (for two shows; for the others the part is played by Ben Lothian).
The stand-out performance is Catherine Smith’s Nancy. She conveys the sparkiness but also the pathos of the character. Her voice is terrific, and ‘As long as he needs me’ is the highlight of the show. It will get even better as the run goes on and she adds more dramatic light and shade.
There are too many minor parts to mention (thanks to Dickens rather than Bart), but those who make a particular impression are Marie Coltman as Widow Corney, Sally Blythe as Mrs Sowerberry and Lisa Willis as Bet.
Apart from a representation of London Bridge that is used as a backdrop to Fagin’s den and in the dramatic final scene, everything is played on a bare stage with maybe a table or a screen to set the scene: not ideal, but a sensible decision given the Barrington’s limitations.
The six-piece band never drowns the singers thanks to the sensitive direction of Lee Redwood, whom we also have to thank for the excellence of the singing.
Future performances: 23 September at 7.30; 24 September at 2.30 and 7.30.