Oliver! Could we ask for more? Lionel Bart’s masterwork (that troubled genius wrote the music, lyrics and script) is always a welcome guest especially in this Dickensian festive season. It is such a rich and brilliant musical – so many great songs, comedy, charm and genuinely scary melodrama. Can it possibly fail? Well of course it can if the production fails to live up to the enormous expectations generated from what is now a national institution. So how did the Cambridge Operatic Society with Young Actors Company fare?
The good news is that they have produced a hugely enjoyable show that has real strength in depth and many memorable musical plums to sweeten a miserable November night. Any production of what must be the best of British musicals (sorry Billy Elliot) pivots around two key characters: that lovable villain Fagin and the eponymous Oliver Twist. Luckily the production has a very strong Fagin in Scott Riley and an utterly heart-rending little cherub (on the night) the eight year-old Alexander Boyd-Bench.
Riley’s reading is interesting – yes there are the tics and physical gyrations of good old Ron Moody but he does bring something fresh to the part. His Fagin is a substantial figure, almost Merlin-like in his attractive wizardry. He would not look out of place in a Tolkien tale. His delivery of that great patter song ‘Reviewing the Situation’ was done with a perfect balance of pathos and comedy; there was a nice original idea when Fagin looks around quizzically to find the source of that very dominant (and beautifully played) solo violin. Young Boyd-Bench sang beautifully and commanded the stage with a tiny but powerful presence.
Other high spots include a wonderfully sung ‘Who will Buy’ ensemble (though the staging here was very odd), an utterly charming ‘Be Back Soon’ and the genuinely dramatic and brutal murder of Nancy by the classic bully Bill Sykes (played with great power and voice by Alan Hay). Eileen Donnelly was in fine voice for the ill-fated Nancy and sang her big solo ‘As long as he needs me’ with power and conviction, bringing something genuine to the part.
The Artful Dodger is of course yet another pivotal character and on the night I saw it, he was played by Harry Gee with enormous cheeky character and boyish energy. There was also much pizazz in the big chorus numbers such as ‘Oompah pah’ and ‘Consider Yourself’. There were nice cameos too from Myles Bradley as the awful beadle Bumble and an unusually strong playing of Bumble’s harridan amour Widow Corney (Mandy Jefferey).
On the slightly critical side of the theatrical balance sheet, there were some letdowns in the show’s staging and production – a few too many players stuck at the back of the stage and a set with two very high and rather pointless staircases which slowed down stage movements and made me worried about potential falls. There were also several moments where Bart’s clever and often intricate lyrics (e.g. rhyming Fagin, with Plague In) couldn’t be properly heard.
But these caveats apart, this was a production to enjoy and admire. The singing was very good, the dancing competent, the acting convincing – a show with a lot of heart, who could ask for anything more?
Oliver! Presented by Cambridge Operatic Society in association with The Young Actors Company is playing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre Tue 27 Nov - Sat 1 December