Last night I had a brilliant night at the Bristol Hippodrome accompanied by my good friend, fellow blogger and theatre lover Naomi, seeing Oliver! for the first time! Admittedly, the film version is not one of my absolute favourites but I’m a fan of many of the songs and was a little upset I never made it to London to see the production, but let me tell you, I didn’t regret this for long!
This production surprised and delighted me not just in terms of how much I loved the cast, but also how much I loved the sets and lighting, which being completely honest is something I really ought to pay a bit more credit and attention to. That in mind, I thought everything here was brilliant- it really had a feel of Dickensian London and I especially loved how Fagin’s den was so moodily lit but given a burst of colour in the presence of all the handkerchiefs, and in the costumes worn by some of Fagin’s gang.
The thunderstorm that heralded the start of Oliver singing Where is Love?, the snow as Mr Bumble cried: Boy For Sale and the pink morning sky that greeted us prior to the beginning of Who Will Buy? were touches that I really loved.
This was the second opportunity I’ve had to see Samantha Barks live (the first being her stage debut in Cabaret) and thought she was absolutely superb as Nancy, looking stunning in that trademark red dress! Her take on the character for me was the perfect blend of courage and vulnerability, and I believed every note she sang- her rendition of As Long As He Needs Me was truly something special; often I generally find it harder to relate to female characters in musicals(couldn’t tell you why) but in the three minutes of that song I was transported so completely into Nancy’s world that I had chills and tears in my eyes. Other favourite moments of hers were during the end of My Name where Bill and Fagin say she must go and bring Oliver back to them: ‘No she won’t go Fagin!’ and during the reprise of It’s A Fine Life: ‘Why Nancy you’re wonderful tonight, such talent, what an actress!’
‘Am I? Well take care I don’t overdo it because if I do I’m gonna put my mark on some of you and I don’t care if I hang for it!’
This line and the rest of her speech during this scene rang with such ferocity that I reminded that Oliver has some very dark moments, particularly in terms of how Bill & Nancy’s relationship is handled. As I’ll explore more later, this darkness punctuated the scenes they shared, and made me feel on edge on more than one occasion, but despite this it was part of why I loved these moments so much- they draw you in, and I for one wanted to take my eyes away from the action but found myself completely unable to, which I mark as testament great storytelling and brilliant acting.
And I’m just going to come out and say it: Oom Pah Pah looks like a real workout what with all the climbing on tables, being spun around and lifted all about the place- but Sam (and indeed the ensemble) made it look completely effortless and gave it such an infectious energy and warmth that I sat there with a smile on my face throughout, as I did during It’s A Fine Life watching her and the boys look like they were having a whale of a time. All of the children sung and acted just as well as the adults, and were a pleasure to watch.
Speaking of the boys, Joseph Bennett was our Oliver and I enjoyed his performance very much- he was very sweet and naïve, as Oliver should be but for a lad of only 10 I felt he had great composure and focus, and really understood the role and this gave his portrayal just the right sense of strength and confidence for me. His Where is Love? was lovely and tugged at my heartstrings. Jaydon Vijn was our Artful Dodger and I thought he was brilliant- confident, well sung and superbly danced.
We were given a lesson in How To Handle Corpsing- 101 from the wonderful Jack Edwards, whose Mr Bumble was the victim of a well timed and highly amusing ‘boo’ from a lady near the front – I think Mr Bumble had said something some might say was sexist and she disapproved- the poor guy started laughing and hid behind his newspaper for a few seconds and re-emerged perfectly composed. Meeting him later was great fun- he demanded to know who it was 😉
Neil Morrissey was brilliant as Fagin. From the minute he emerged to raucous applause, I could tell he was going to bring something special to the character, and I enjoyed every minute he was onstage- a highlight being the courage he had to slip a not so subtle reference to Bob The Builder in there! His Reviewing The Situation was another highlight- had me humming along for hours after.
Much of my familiarity with the show (besides the film) comes from the 2009 London Cast Recording with Jodie Prenger and Rowan Atkinson, but one of my special favourites is actually My Name, sung by Burn Gorman as Bill Sikes. Each time I listened to the song(even way before I came to see this production), I’d try and visualise how it was staged, and boy oh boy did they get my imaginings right here! This was down to the (in my opinion, anyway) perfect casting of Iain Fletcher in the role. I mentioned earlier how the relationship between Bill and Nancy is very dark, and we get the first instance of that here. Bill struts around, scaring the patrons of the pub with talk of his reputation, eventually striding over to Nancy. He sings the lines:
‘Biceps, like an iron girder, fit for, doin’ of a murder’ and as he does takes the visibly frightened Nancy tightly in his arms, almost whispering this last part into her neck. In a warped kind of way it was almost romantic, and spoke volumes about the depth and troubling element of their relationship. Iain also unsettled me during his very first appearance- Bill says absolutely nothing almost the entirety of this scene, but Iain’s stance and everything about how he commanded the stage radiated this cold, menacing aura. This is in complete contrast to the sweet, funny, soft spoken gentleman we met later at Stage Door. I told him that he frightened me-He apologised profusely, bless him! But I assured him that any Bill Sikes that can do that is a winner in my book 🙂 Special mention also to the Bull Terrier who played Bullseye- a complete star, so well behaved!
Left feeling completely uplifted by a wonderful production and encounters with a charming cast… (as well as Jack & Iain, we met Neil & Sam – all of them are lovely and I can’t thank them enough for their time 🙂 )
Please sir, I want some more!