February 15, 2009 § Leave a comment
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is back. Mind you, it hardly ever seems to have been away in the 49 years since its premiere. And even this version, newly directed by Rupert Goold, is a re-creation of Sam Mendes’s 1994 production. But not even the expertise of the staging and a handful of fine performances can disguise the essential thinness of this piece of deodorised musical Dickens. Bart may have been a great tunesmith, but he was a maladroit storyteller; what his version misses is Dickens’s social anger and Gothic strangeness.
- Theatre Royal, Drury Lane,
- WC2B 5JF
- Booking to 26 September
- Box office:
0844 412 2955
- Venue website
Dickens’s opening chapters are a savagely ironic attack on the new Poor Laws and a system under which Oliver and his workhouse companions “suffered the torture of slow starvation for three months”: all that is camouflaged by the cheery opening chorus of Food Glorious Food. And there is nothing here to match the Kafkaesque weirdness of Fagin’s trial, in which the old reprobate, while awaiting sentence of death, starts to speculate on how much the judge’s robe cost and how he put it on.
But although this is sanitised Dickens, Bart manages to write some thumping good tunes and provide scope for individual actors. And, allowing that Bart’s Fagin is hardly the Manichean figure of Dickens’s fevered imagination, Rowan Atkinson turns in a sprightly, distinctive performance.
Atkinson’s Fagin may be essentially comic but he endows the character with a camply sinister edge. Greeting Harry Stott’s well-mannered Oliver for the first time, he says: “I hope I shall have the honour of your intimate acquaintance” with lisping intensity. And there is even a mixture of paternalism and faint paedophilia in the way he gazes fondly at the sleeping boy.
Atkinson also plays up the character’s sexual ambiguity. When Bill Sikes presents him with a ring, he coquettishly cries: “This is all so sudden”, and goes on to don a tiara and choker with suspiciously feminine pleasure.
But Atkinson is at his best in Reviewing The Situation, where, responding to the kletzmer echoes in Bart’s music and the plangent sound of a solo violin, he twists his body into a state of corkscrewing indecision as he dithers between crime and respectability.
If this revival is worth catching, it is largely for Atkinson’s saturnine comic presence. The biggest fuss, of course, has been about the casting of Jodie Prenger as Nancy on the strength of TV’s I’d Do Anything competition. The good news is that she acquits herself extremely well. The role, as written, makes little sense, in that one minute Nancy is declaring her undying love for Bill Sikes in As Long As He Needs Me, and the next betraying him to the good guys.
But Prenger delivers her big number with passionate fervour. She is even better in the raucous Oom-Oom-Pah where the stage fills with Hogarthian detail as plump women retch into buckets and copulation thrives in the dark corners of the Three Cripples pub.
This is about as good as the show, or Matthew Bourne’s choreography, gets. For the rest, there are too many Cockney knees-ups in which characters actually do stick their thumbs into their waistcoat sides. And, although the house adored Ross McCormack’s pint-sized, top-hatted Artful Dodger, he seemed to me too aware of his cute charm. But this is the basic problem with a show altogether too full of beery cheer and too little conscious of the darkness of Dickens’s imagination.
Goold stages it with fluent efficiency, and Anthony Ward’s sets, with their perspectives of St Paul’s and their sliding bridges, are handsome to look at. But too many of the characters are ciphers, and the plot is largely a device for getting the numbers on. Only once did I feel an authentic whiff of Dickens — the creepy dual performances of Julian Bleach as a spindly, necrophiliac undertaker, and then a toothfully grinning, incompetent Dr Grimwig.
For the most part, however, this is Dickens as jolly family entertainment stripped of the sense of solitude that has roots in the author’s own experience and that makes Oliver Twist such a disturbing novel.