Glorious, high-spirited and full of gumption, Luke Sheppard’s Oliver! at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury is a first class production of the rags to riches musical. Given an appropriately sooty and rustic iron aesthetic by designer Tom Rodgers, the tale seems almost created for the industrial powerhouse of an old watermill. Indeed, the designer for the original production imagined a great mill wheel for his inspiration and the Watermill’s building predates Oliver by just a few years. With umber smeared under the actors’ eyes, clouds of dust comically rising from Dodger’s battered top hat, a mistily eerie London Bridge pinpointed by yellow lamp light, and laundry flung out among the audience, the details capture Dickensian London perfectly.
Tim Jackson shows how tight execution of inventive choreography can do not just anything but everything to animate a production. The opening rendition of ‘Food, Glorious Food’, with a recipe of smart twists and turns by the workhouse urchins, kicks off with convincing vigour. Brassy ratta-tat-tats from metal bowls and the pounding of stamping feet find the energy and dynamism usually reserved for tap dance. In this, Jackson’s musical background is clear, his choreography often seeming closer to composition in the way unison bodies are made to create sound. The 11 boys and girls of the youth theatre worked in exact concert with each other to achieve a remarkably polished group performance.
However, a slightly fragile voice of the particular Oliver I saw (Thomas Kerry) lacked the endearing insolence we expect of the character from the beginning in his famous request for “more please, sir”. Perhaps it can all be put down to nerves so early in the run as the young actor certainly shows promise. It’s possible too that the other boys handle the role with more confidence. In any case, the strength of the youth chorus and adult roles ensures any weaker moments never undermine the quality of the show as a whole.
Archie Fisher is magnificently precocious as the darting and devious Artful Dodger, ever amusing the audience with his faux-toff mannerisms. There are impressive turns from the adult cast, with a morbidly seductive ‘It’s Your Funeral’ (Joey Hickman and Deborah Hewitt) and quaintly kinky ‘I Shall Scream!’ (Graham Lappin and Susannah van der Berg) demonstrating the versatility of those taking on multiple roles.
Cameron Blakely as Fagin disrupts the driving pace of the first half with his entrance; his wily affectations are at first a distraction. They place Fagin somewhere between honourable rogue and awkward comic, leaving his motley crew of pickpockets seeming unsure how to relate to their master. He soars, however, in the second half when these pretensions are toned down. Accompanied by a virtuosic violin, using exaggerated vibrato and swoops, Blakely’s version of ‘Reviewing the Situation’ becomes like Fantasia of British Sea-Songs at the Last Night of the Proms, getting steadily faster and faster, ending in what becomes a teasing dialogue between actor and violin.
The interlude is indicative of Paul Herbert’s playful take on Barts’ musical arrangements throughout, designed to show off the skills of the onstage musicians and give an extra ounce of oomph to the songs. The only tricky moment arose during Nancy’s (Alice Fearn) desperate ‘He Needs Me’. Fearn has a terrific belt to her voice (demonstrated during some interval entertainment of Oom Pa Pa in the garden) but the rubato handling of the piano section in ‘He Needs Me’ was without the precision needed to mirror perfectly with the band’s accompaniment.
When Fagin sings, “Who will change the scene?”, the backdrop of pocket handkerchiefs flies up into the fly tower. The metatheatrical gag captures how precisely the rhythmic timing, on point comedy and resounding songs come together to create a loveably entertaining production.
Oliver! is playing at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury until 19 September. For more information and tickets, see the Watermill Theatre website. Photo by Philip Tull.