NODA Review of HYT Production - Oliver!
‘Oliver!’ is a show which carved a niche for itself in the popular theatrical repertoire almost immediately upon its arrival in the West End in 1960. I particularly enjoy the dichotomy between Dickens’s dark source material and the musical’s deliberately bright and breezy treatment of the same themes. I also find that ‘Oliver!’ (note the jolly exclamation mark in the show’s title) is an especially tricky beast to bring to the stage successfully, as those self same dark and challenging themes from the novel can sometimes rub awkwardly alongside the much broader treatment the musical version of the tale affords it’s subject. It is a show I have been involved with myself many times over the years: my first attempt at ‘adult’ am dram was as a rather feeble Noah Claypole at the tender age of 16 - having graduated from the Youth Theatre wing of Burnley Light Opera - in 1990 and I have worked my way through the cast list in the subsequent decades, had a stab at directing a couple of productions, not to mention having seen a fair few ‘Oliver!’s in my time too. The show is a slippery beast to tame for all its lighthearted charms, so I settled into my seat in keen anticipation of what the talented Todmorden team would bring to this theatrical evergreen.
The fantastic set which had been lovingly crafted by the technical team at the Hippodrome was a sight to behold and summoned up the dark Victorian atmosphere very impressively. The different (and sturdy looking!) levels of the playing space were well used and added an extra dimension to the drama, as well as giving a professional sheen to the overall ‘look’ of the piece. Our benighted orphans gave a very good account of themselves in the opening numbers and had obviously been well drilled. Noah Bhimull-Hilton was a solid presence as Mr Bumble and Katie Greenwood’s performance as Oliver was very confident and assured from the outset. Oliver is a tricky little part to get right as he only really comes to life when put alongside the series of grotesques he bumps into on his picaresque journey through Victorian London’s seamier side but Katie had plenty of character and did a good job of breathing life into a role which can often be rather blank and feeble.
Eliza Edwards made for a particularly shrill and shrewish Widow Corney - her vocal treatment of ‘I Shall Scream’ was particularly jarring - and her humorous duet with Mr Bumble was well done. I wasn’t sure about taking Bumble’s notes down the stave a bit (I missed the faux piety of his pompous tenor voice in the opening ‘call to prayer’) but it didn’t have an enormously negative impact on ‘Boy For Sale’ and the exigencies of matching performer, character and vocal range was thoughtfully done.
Arriving at the Sowerberry’s, Elliot Sale threw himself into the role of the undertaker with a good deal of confidence and although I have to admit to finding some of his mannerisms rather ‘stagey’ - he was never hard to spot in the chorus numbers later in the show as a result - there was no denying his lithe and lissom stage presence. Mirren Sunderland blundered and flustered quite marvellously as Mrs Sowerberry, with Theo Henson-Bates and Hannah Stobbs provided strong support as Noah and Charlotte and the whole scene was nicely punctuated with Oliver’s ‘Where is Love’ which was well sung by Katie Greenwood.
All too soon, Oliver finds himself in the company of the Artful Dodger, a wonderfully forthright performance from Ellie Spooner bringing a fresh take on the role: she nailed Dodger’s naive charm and got the character just right. As we are ushered into Fagin’s thieves kitchen to meet the man himself, the audience’s expectation was almost tangible and we weren’t disappointed: James Waring created a deliciously sinister monster of a character in his version of Fagin. Equal parts ‘Victorian Nefarious’ and ‘Video Nasty’, here was a compulsively watchable villain who really impressed. His grimy self assuredness and effortlessly fluid movement around the stage complemented each other superbly. James’s Fagin managed to capture both the dark Dickensian drama and the brighter, bouncier Bart in a single characterisation quite superbly.
Amy Jefferson brought soul and heartache to Nancy, as is only proper. This was one of the few productions of ‘Oliver!’ which really understood how to deal with ‘As Long As He Needs Me’: all too often, the handbrake is applied to the narrative to allow Nancy to belt out her showstopping number whereas here, the song was essayed as a plaintive cry from a battered streetwalker who tragically happens to love (need?) her tormentor. Spot on. Callum Roberts was every inch the menacing bruiser as Bill Sikes; Isaac Carlson was a rather vague and apologetic Mr Brownlow (rather nicely done too I thought!) Elliot Sale added another surfeit of wrist and elbow action to proceedings, this time as Dr Grimwig and Charlotte Collins’s sweet vocal tones made a delightful appearance as Mrs Bedwin.
The same amount of thought, care and attention went into each and every set piece in the show, whether it be a roustabout chorus number, a solo, duet, or anything in between. ‘Consider Yourself’ erupted into a lively, colourful tableau; ‘I’d Do Anything’ was beautifully worked; ‘Be Back Soon’ didn’t outstay it’s welcome; ‘Who Will Buy’ was a marvellous musical display; ‘Reviewing the Situation’ did a beautiful job of combining plot, character and theme in a way which took a brisk trot through a song which can often drag. This was a show which looked as good as it sounded from start to finish with an excellent orchestra providing the cherry on the icing on the cake.
True, there were moments where the need for scene changes took rather longer that they might - ‘vamp until ready’ with the scene change underscoring occasionally became tiresome - but this was excused for the most part for the sumptuous overall effect of the staging. Sometimes I wondered if the underlying tone of a particular scene or performance was really hitting the mark but these were rare blips on the radar. I have to admit that I didn’t care for the rather long-winded finale which threatened to upend the evening’s good work from being an engaging and interesting exploration of a familiar tale into a rather banal singalong: fortunately the investment the production team had made in providing top quality entertainment throughout the show excused the excess of the finale. In any case, the audience lapped it up so far be it for me to mumble ‘Bah humbug!’ in the vein of another of Dickens’ vivid creations...
This was yet another grand entertainment from the talented Todmorden team across the board. Interesting direction; a sumptuous orchestral sound; technical support - lighting, sound, costumes, props, make-up - of the highest standard and a commitment to maintaining live entertainment of the very highest quality. My thanks as always to all at the Hippodrome for a lovely welcome and a most enjoyable evening.