Twist and clout

Oliver! (Redcliffe Musical Theatre)

Redcliffe Entertainment Centre

July 8 – 17

‘God is good’, signage signals as Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s production of Lionel Bart’s musical masterpiece “Oliver!” opens. To the orphans under beadle Mr Bumble’s (Alex Thanasoulis) care, gathered in the workhouse for their early evening gruel, however, all is not good, as signalled by the titular Oliver Twist’s (Toby Bailey) famous request for more. And so the show begins as Oliver and the boys sing of ‘Food Glorious Food’ which not only reminds audience members of the familiarity of the musical’s score, but signals Sara Jane Aistrope and Tayhah McClennan’s effective choreography, which works well to keep things dynamic despite the large number of performers often on stage. Indeed, this is one of the show’s highlights, as evidenced particularly in a big ‘Consider Yourself’, the song that marks Oliver’s acceptance into the gang of pickpockets led by the older Fagin (Thomas Armstrong-Robley) and the playful introduction to ‘I’d Do Anything’ which mocks the way the rich treat each other.

Based on the Charles Dickens’ perennial “Oliver Twist”, the musical tells the story of the orphaned Oliver and his struggles against the often cruel world within which he lives on the streets of Victorian England. After he is sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker, he is accepted by a bunch of London thieves and pickpockets. Unsuited to a life of crime Oliver soon discovers that leaving Fagin’s gang and starting anew won’t be so easy. There is an infectious energy to many ensemble numbers, especially from Sienna Randall as Bet who commands our attention with her every appearance on stage. And then there is Georgia Burnett who, from her first introduction as heart-of-gold trick-turner Nancy, is a vibrant as her vivid red dress. Shona Bailey is also wonderfully animated as Mrs Sowerberry, one part of the insensitive couple of take Oliver in to use him in their funeral business.

With such playful tones and its child-heavy cast, “Oliver!” is perhaps a perfect introduction to traditional musicals for kids. As innocent as its protagonist is, however, the world into which he is plunged is an amoral one. The story’s darker themes are hinted at from early on courtesy of Chris Walker’s lighting design which shadows the first appearance of the sinister Bill Sikes (Matthew Leigh) and awashes the stage in red in representation of his menacing musical moment.  For the most part, however, this “Oliver!” is jolly family entertainment, largely due to the entertaining performances of its cast.  

Even with Mr Bumble on-book after Thanasoulis stepped into the role with only two days’ notice due illness of the original cast member, he and the Widow Corney (Tracey Slingsby) have some hilarious interactions. Miguel Gambley captures the Cockney-ness of the cheeky Artful Dodger and is clearly comfortable on stage, especially in his control of the diverse pitch within ‘Consider Yourself’ as it grows into a full company number. And Armstrong-Robley gives a commanding performance as Fagin. More weasely than downright devious, his Fagin is shown as less of a stereotype and more of a kind-hearted villain lording over his band of street urchins, and it works well to endear him to us. Bailey has the lovely voice required of Oliver and does well to persevere through microphone issues during his tender ‘Where is Love’ lament as a lonely child without someone to care for him.

“Oliver!” is all about its score, which is full of familiar, toe-tapping tunes like ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’. Even hidden away, under Musical Director Rhonda Davidson Irwin as conductor, the orchestra colours the distinctly different characters of musical’s score, giving a lightness to the wistful melodies of Nancy’s ‘It’s a Fine Life’ and the Klezmer beat of Fagin’s ‘Reviewing the Situation’.With on-point playing, the orchestra easily transitions us from the rollicking ‘little ditty from the city’ old tavern song, ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ to the menace of villain Bill Sikes’ ‘My Name’ and then later serene street vendor number ‘Who Will Buy?’

Burnett’s powerful singing voice is impressively showcased in Nancy’s ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ attempt to convince herself of Bill’s love, however, her commitment to its delivery in a cockney accent detracts its connection with the audience. Under Madeline John’s considered direction, however, the show tempos along, including with ebbs and flows to allow moments to land. This reminds audiences of the classic musical’s clout and the virtues of its most-known tunes, resulting in a very entertaining show, that even with its tragedy, social commentary, criminals and orphans, will ultimately leave you with a spring in your step.

Highlights of hope

Oliver! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

18 June – 2 July 

A lot of Savoyard’s production of the musical “Oliver!” happens in the shadows; the dark and dramatic visit to Victorian London’s murky underworld begins with its cast of downtrodden workhouse orphans marching from the stalls onto the stage in want of food, glorious food and it does not shy away from the story’s gritty violence. Yet the reimagining ultimately shines a light on just how timeless the musical is, particularly in terms of its brilliant score, which is full of favourite numbers.

Based on the Charles Dickens’ classic novel, “Oliver Twist”, the musical is a story about holding onto hope in the darkest of times in its tell of the story of the young orphan, Oliver, and his struggles against the, often cruel world within which he lives. After daring to ask for more food at the workhouse where he is lodged, he is sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker before escaping to London where he finds himself accepted by a bunch of thieves and pickpockets, led by the elderly Fagin. Unsuited to a life of crime Oliver soon discovers that leaving Fagin’s gang and starting anew won’t be so easy.

With a multi-generational cast of over 50 performers, the show features an abundance of talent. Jeremiah Rees is wonderful as opening night’s eponymous hero, ethereally good-natured in juxtaposition to the squalor of his environment, but also plucky with moral determination. His pure, angelic voice epitomises his innocence, as evidenced in his main ballad, ‘Where is Love’ in which he longs for love and the mother he never knew.

Under David Harrison’s artistic direction, the production is layered with vivid characterisations. Warryn James is well-cast as Fagin. His performance is compelling in its energy and humour as he plays games and jokes with his pickpocketing students, often through song. Priyah Shah is also a standout in the range she brings to the kindly character of Nancy, member of Fagin’s gang and sympathetic lover of the sinister antagonist Bill Sikes (Raymond Gillmore). Her lead of Act Two’s opener ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’, makes the rollicking old tavern song infectious to us as much as the boisterous low-life ruffian customers on stage in a “Les Miserables” ‘Master of the House’ type way. Her strong vocals are no better seen than in Nancy’s torch song, the powerfully despairing ‘As Long as He Needs Me’, in which she attempts to convince herself of Bill’s love, leaving the audience spellbound. Indeed, her shows of strength but also vulnerability ensure that Nancy is presented as a complex character to be considered beneath the veneer of her defence of brutal Bill’s abuse.

Oliver Dobrenov gives us a charismatic, cockney child-gang leader, Artful Dodger, confidently leading many ensemble numbers and Rod Jones and Phillipa Bowe are gloriously hyperbolic in their early show play off each other as the self-important beadle of the poorhouse where the orphaned Oliver is raised and the sharp-tongued widow Mrs Corney, especially in their saucy interplay into ‘I Shall Scream’.

The show is filled with harmonious chorus numbers. The communal ‘Consider Yourself’ when the ensemble assembles together, is a glorious highlight. Unfortunately, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ when Oliver is introduced to Fagin and his boys falls comparatively short on Opening Night, courtesy only of significant microphone issues that plague things from Fagin’s entrance. James does well to not only work through the ongoing crackles and static, but persevere without amplification amongst a sea of other voices, which detracts from the animation of his triumphant recall of successfully executed crimes.  

Under Jacqueline Atherton’s considered musical direction, a lively orchestra advances the plot with songs and underscoring, utilising a range of melodies to represent the different characters, as well as reminding us of the virtues of the musical’s most-known tunes. Kim Heslewood and team’s costume design adds texture and movement alike, from the colourful toff pop of the Artful Dodger’s jacket to the petticoat ruffles of dancer dresses, while Lynne Swain’s makeup design contributes much to the gothic sensibility of early scenes, particularly those featuring the Tim Burtonesque funeral owners, Mr and Mrs Sowerberry (David Harrison and Hannah Davies). Carlie McEachern’s lively choreography includes its own detailed highlights, such as in the chimney sweep moves within an Act Two ensemble number and Sherryl-Lee Secomb’s set design makes good use of the space, allowing for locations to pop open from within its facades.

This is an excellent musical revival, full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience, including nod to the melodramatic imagery and rhetoric that characterised the Victorian stage of its setting. While finding the drama with the text means including its depictions of domestic violence and alike, this is handled well, making it still suitable for younger audience members, after some pre-emptive conversations. Social satire aside, however, what is most resonate about this “Oliver!” is its theme of resilience and hope that things will get better, which makes it at-once inherently British in its sensibility but also universal in its ultimate impact.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall