When the staff in the cloak room are humming the songs before you even get into the theatre, you know you’re in for a good show. Daniel Evans’s production of Oliver! is bursting with flair, joie de vivre and, of course, catchy tunes. Evans doesn’t shy away from the darkness inherent in Dickens’s original story – the piece is rife with child abuse, domestic abuse, thieves, crooks, murder, poverty, fallen women and questionable old men.
Despite the improbably saccharine ending, Evans manages to bring out the evil at the heart of this story, emphasising that we’re in a time when greed and corruption run rife, leaving many destitute and desperate. Sound familiar? It’s not sanctimonious, though, and nor does it over-emphasise its similarities with ConDem Britain. This is a joyful, energetic production for all of its bleaker aspects. Evans has crafted a show so exuberant that the power coming off the stage could heat Sheffield.
A well-drilled and impressive group of young people from the surrounding area populate the workhouse, London’s streets and Fagin’s lair. There’s a freshness and vibrancy to the young cast which is lovely, especially when contrasted with the stillness of the sinister and violent Bill Sikes (Ben Richards). Jack Skilbeck-Dunn played Oliver in this performance, with a sweet naivety and a sweeter voice. Jack Armstrong’s Artful Dodger is irresistible – we would follow him as easily as Oliver does. Evans has plotted a nice course for Oliver; he starts downtrodden and meek, and we watch him gradually blossom under the dubious tutelage of Dodger and Fagin (Tom Edden).
David Phipps-Davis’s Mr Bumble is a real treat and in possession of an exceptionally fine singing voice. His scenes with both Liza Sadovy and Chris Vincent (as the Sowerberrys), and Rebecca Lock’s hilarious Widow Corney, are especially fun. Some of the acting scenes get a little overwrought at times, but as soon as the company launches into another song, all is forgiven, especially if the singer in question is Hayley Gallivan’s ebullient but tender Nancy. She manages to create a believable character who both fights against and doesn’t know how to escape the abusive relationship that will ultimately be the death of her.
The choreography is excellent (Alistair David). Not as overblown as in the famous film, this feels both tongue-in-cheek and deeply committed – the energy is incredible. Peter McKintosh’s austere design looms over the stage, becoming workhouse, Fagin’s den or busy street with ease. It embraces the Crucible’s broad stage and makes the most of its expanse of space. The orchestra, under Jonathan Gill, are spot on throughout, and kudos to all involved for using live music. It makes such a difference. Aside from some dodgy cockney accents, this is a pretty much faultless romp through Oliver!, well-acted, well-danced, well-sung, and, of course, complete with hum-all-the-way-home tunes.
Oliver! is playing at Sheffield Crucible until 25 Janaury 2014. For more information and to book tickets, visit Sheffield Theatres’s website.