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Friday, January 16, 2009

A few bright jewels in formulaeic "Oliver!"

I am a little puzzled. Analysing all the different elements of the lavish new production of Oliver! at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it would seem to be a tour de force: wonderful comic performance by Rowan Atkinson; superb sets and lighting which really create an atmosphere of old London; very strong singing voices across the cast, and of course the delightful Lionel Bart songs.

And indeed on the second night the cast did get another standing ovation.

But somehow it all felt a bit flat to me. There were isolated nuggets of warmth and sparkle, but overall I felt it had been honed to such precision over its long preview season that the cast is already going through the motions. It didn't feel like a new show. There was no sense of the horror of the poverty and deprivation suffered by Oliver, or the brutality of Nancy's murder. It was a saccharine sweet Oliver performed at breakneck speed.

The first half was marred by a cringeworthy interchange between Mr Bumble and the Widow Corney, and the clumsily staged escape of Oliver from the funeral director. The big routines in London and in Fagin's Den were executed with precision, although it was hard to recapture the exuberance of "Consider Yourself" on stage with a small cast (albeit a cast of 80, the largest in a London show).

The highlight of the second half was the rendition of "who will buy" which was colourful and exuberant. It seemed as if the cast had relaxed after the interval and were starting to enjoy themselves.

Rowan Atkinson succeeds in bringing a new dimension to Fagin - very difficult when you consider who's played this character in the past. He applies a wonderfully delicate comic touch, particularly in exchanges with one tiny child.

Bill Sikes is underplayed by Burn Gorman (Guppy from Bleak House) and it's a good decision based on all the over playing that is going on. His demise is hugely disappointing.

When Nancy first appeared, I immediately thought that Jodie Prenger had managed to shift some more weight, but then I realised that it wasn't Prenger. Big disappointment after reading about her wonderful first night. Tamsin Carroll, not in the first flush of youth, was a very workmanlike Nancy, lacking charm but possessing a huge voice.

Oliver, one of three, was played by Laurence Jeffcoate, a winsom child with a superb voice, pure and true. His rendition of "Where is love" was far superior to Mark Lester's in the eponymous film version.

Finally a word on Mr Brownlow's costume. It looks as if the wardrobes of Phantom and Toad of Toad Hall were raided for his curious brightly coloured frock coats and capes. Most bizarre.

So overall, a well executed show following a familiar formula. Very bland and adding nothing new.

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