Director James Brining obviously recognises that it’s essentially the memorable songs which have made Lionel Bart’s Oliver! such a popular musical since its production in 1960.
Thanks to the film version, there can’t be many who don’t recognise -and could probably sing – tunes like the title song Food, Glorious Food as well as Consider Yourself, You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, I’d Do Anything, and Oom-Pah-Pah.
At Leeds Playhouse, from the opening Food, Glorious Food, lustily rendered by a youthful company commendably recruited from open auditions rather than stage schools, all those tunes and more get an irresistibly full-blooded treatment. The grown-ups are, for the most part, excellent too. Jenny Fitzpatrick’s feisty Nancy brings the house down with a tough but tender version of As Long As He Needs Me which manages to make her problematic and coercive (at least to a contemporary audience) relationship with Chris Bennett’s genuinely scary Bill Sikes touching rather than infuriating.
The other narrative issue for a modern audience can be Fagin, a clearly Jewish exploiter of young children. Steve Furst’s Fagin, although not exactly cleaned-up, is a far more nuanced and conflicted character than we usually see and his version of Reviewing the Situation, with a pitch-perfect arrangement by musical director William David Brohn, is a production highlight. Add to all that an intriguing and energetic in-the-round staging, designed by Colin Richmond, and this production is very nearly classic. Yet some doubts remain.
In his eagerness to get to the next big musical number, Brining seems prepared to sacrifice some of the other scenes, the ‘undertaker scene’ with Mr and Mrs Sowerberry being a particularly glaring missed opportunity. Also, where the dickens was the dog Bullseye? Giving a human character that name struck me as simply odd. So, perhaps not a perfect production but a darn good one all in all, and one which is sure to delight families over the festive period.
Main image by Alastair Muir
Oliver! is at Leeds Playhouse Quarry Theatre until January 27, 2024. For more information, click here.