Saturday 24 October 2009

Oliver, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, central London

It would be difficult to ask for more from this extravagant all-singing, all-dancing production of Lionel Bart’s adaptation of Charles Dickens' renown novel about the grim underbelly of Victorian London. Together, the cast and orchestra number about 100 and, during the big set piece songs, such as Consider Yourself At Home, the stage is a whirling mass of carefully choreographed activity that will have you trying to watch four cameos at once. Some of the individual performances are also from the top drawer. Two parts humour, one part melancholy, British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, who has taken over from Rowan Atkinson, plays Fagin to near perfection. The comic noises Djalili makes in between sentences, his languid dance moves, mimicked by the smallest of his gang of pickpockets, and his rich repertoire of facial expressions will have you chuckling out loud. Another standout is Tamsin Carroll, the "alternative" Nancy, who has a fine voice, gusto and a fluid, convincing acting style. Ross McCormack is full of sparkling energy as the Artful Dodger and Steven Hartley's Sykes is hoarse, but suitably menacing. The standout scenes include a rousing chorus of Oom Pah, Pah amid the drunkeness and debauchery of the ale house and the amusing introduction to Fagin in his intricate, multi-level underground lair, which is a maze of cubby holes, adorned with rows and rows of silk handkerchiefs.

Odd juxtaposition
Not everything works, however. Although Gwion Wyn Jones as Oliver is a pitch-perfect singer, he is too well-spoken and too much of a choir boy to be a convincing product of the work house. Another odd juxtaposition is the succession of jaunty, upbeat songs with the dour subject matter - hungry young children being humiliated by callous adults is not exactly a feelgood storyline. Your disbelief might be further exacerbated by the ham fistfights, in which you can see plenty of space between a blow and its supposed target, and the pantomime-style sparring of the chubby work house owner and his chubby wife.

Gateway to another world
Still, you need some breathing space to admire the extraordinary, three-dimensional sets - particularly impressive is the use of the full-depth of the massive stage to recreate the streets and landmarks of the city from St. Paul's Cathedral to London Bridge to Regency terraces. At times it feels like you are peering through a gateway into another world. When Fagin limps towards the dawn light at the end of the show, he actually appears to walking off into the distance. Capable of holding an audience of two thousand, the Theatre Royal itself is a very grand setting with more than a dozen boxes and several tiers of seating. If you book some of the cheap seats for a weekday evening right up in the balcony, you might just get upgraded to the first few rows of the stalls. Even if you don't, you'll probably still find the enormous cast, the spectacular sets, the attention to detail, the catchy songs and Djalili's expert performance make for a very entertaining evening. 8/10