Review: Oliver!

By John Nathan, January 22, 2009

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London WC2

During the curtain call for this extravagantly revived Sam Mendes production, directed here by theatre’s golden boy, Rupert Goold, a giant picture of the late Lionel Bart descends from the flies. Everyone on-stage and off looks up and applauds.

That this is the most moving moment in a show about child abuse and exploitation tells its own story. In writing Oliver!, Bart created this country’s best loved musical. Yet even though the workhouse here is gothic horrible and the adults gorgeously grotesque (especially Julian Bleach’s Nosferatu-like funeral director), this is a lite version of Dickens, passing as a series of expertly-staged set-pieces that amount to little more than theme-park storytelling.

Still, Bart’s song-writing talent was superlative. That this tailor’s son could not read music yet composed the sweet counter melodies of Who Will Buy? is a miracle. And in terms of production values, the show spectacularly lives up to the licence fee-funded publicity provided by the BBC’s casting series I’ll Do Anything. Anthony Ward’s design is a triumph of perspective. St Paul’s rises and falls and five-story buildings part like waves as Oliver is chased through London.

As the show’s most charismatic character, Rowan Atkinson’s Fagin is more Jewish than Jonathan Pryce’s 1994 ethnically neutral version. It is a performance for which Atkinson deploys a lilting accent and some semitic shrugging. And while singing Reviewing the Situation, his body quivers to the strains of a klezmer violin. All of which is fair enough for a character who is specifically old-school Jewish in Dickens’s original version, and implicitly Jewish in Bart’s.

But with his boggle-eyed mugging and double takes, it turns out Atkinson cannot do without his Mr Bean shtick, which he is not afraid to beat you with.

BBC winner Jodie Prenger is more promising than triumphant as the buxom, good-hearted Nancy. When this show works, it is under kids’ power, as when in the superb opening orphanage scene 50 starving urchins march to Food Glorious Food or when the press night’s Oliver, Harry Scott, sings Where Is Love with aching tenderness, or when Ross McCormack’s Dodger steals the show with a jaunty “Consider Yourself”. But these turns are oases of interest in an evening of longeurs.

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Last updated: 4:32pm, April 28 2009