It’s impossible not to be charmed by the Watermill Theatre’s current production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, a musical loosely based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same name, which enjoyed unprecedented international success before becoming an oscar-nominated film in 1968.
The eleven adult cast members in this revival, who live on site throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, are not only proficient actors and singers, they are also talented musicians who have to incorporate instrument-playing into their performances, both on stage and in the side slips, making us more aware of the score than the typical pit-style orchestra. And the alternating cast of children were found, not from stage schools around the country, but the local primary, with director Luke Sheppard, who once starred in the London Palladium version as a young boy, clearly knowing just how to bring out the best in youngsters looking for something to do during the summer holidays.
Designer Tom Rogers has meanwhile drawn on the Watermill’s unique atmosphere to thrilling effect. This intimate 220 seat auditorium with creaky wooden beams, located in a wing of an ancient mill, is a setting which particularly suits the opening workhouse scenes, conveying the harsh realities of Victorian London and the living conditions of orphans fed on nothing but gruel. Naturally the boys all long for ‘Food, Glorious Food’, a song which never fails to bring a smile to the faces of audiences everywhere and one I always dread hearing, knowing that it will get stuck in my head for days.
With Oliver (Raiko Gohara) being sold to husband and wife undertakers, the Sowerberrys, by Mr Bumble (Graham Lappin) on uttering the famous line ‘Please Sir, I want some more’, he escapes having to walk behind infant coffins as a mourner only to find himself embroiled in the gritty existence of Fagin’s merry mob of pickpockets. The song ‘You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two’ is effervescently performed by a cast who look like they’re having jolly good fun, although Gohara as Oliver, whilst having a good voice, looked a little out of his depth.
There have been whispers of a West End transfer, prompted by national critics who think it’s strong enough a production to go all the way, and whilst not all cast members would be assured of a place should this happen, Archie Fisher easily stole the limelight from all the children as the cockney pickpocket, The Artful Dodger, and Cameron Blakely as Fagin and Alice Fearn as Nancy could hold their own against any one.
In a story essentially telling of a young boy’s quest for love, Nancy, the victim of her husband Bill Sike’s violent temper, is the only truly kind-hearted character save Mr Brownlow (Steve Watts), whom we discover is in fact Oliver’s grandfather, but although Nancy feels bound to save Oliver from a life of thievery and crime she loyally refuses to snitch on Bill (Kit Orton). With the audience treated to a scene in the garden during the interval, the cast encouraging them to sing along to ‘Oom Pah Pah’, the second half proved considerably stronger than the first, with Fearn’s rendition of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ unquestionably one of the highlights.
From the energetic choreography by Tim Jackson, a highly creative orchestration, and taking a gamble with a young troupe of actors fresh from the school play, this production never fails to entertain and is a worthwhile introduction to the original book for a young audience. It also begs Cameron Mackintosh, who co-owns the rights to the work, to explore giving Oliver! another opportunity to shine on the West End alongside other box office successes featuring children in the leading role such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and Billy Elliot. Judging by how quickly the tickets at the Watermill sold out, the return of Oliver! is long overdue.
Oliver! at the Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, Newbury RG20 8AE, until 19th September 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.