Venue: York Theatre Royal
Producers: David Merrick, Donal Alberry
Director: Martyn Knight
Plucking vigorously at strings, the fifteen-piece orchestra of keys, viola, violin, oboe, drums and xylophone welcome the audience into the exciting criminal undercurrent of Charles Dickens’ London.
Grey-clad boys march into the workhouse singing ‘Food, Glorious Food’. Uncertain at first, the voices climax to belt out the final chorus where audience engage with warm applause. The spotlight struggles to find the actors, awkwardly deciding whom to follow. Mr Bumble (John Hall) and Widow Corney (Rosy Rowley) bulge onto stage providing a pompous contrast to the underfed boys, indicating a contrast that lingers underneath the play’s energy: wealth and poverty. Their cartoon-like costumes balloon over swollen bellies matching their cheesy, vulgar, but just about comic, flirting routine that involves curvaceous bottom wagging and angled pouring of tea.
The action is sculpted to perfection. 3ft tall Oliver, (Reuben Lally) is helped by the banging drums to pound Noah Claypole (Richard McDonald) double his size, to the ground, accompanied by thrilling shrieks from Maid Charlotte (Katie Melia).
Characters ease into the dirt of the city. Humour, although struggling at times, generally manoeuvres confidently about the chaos. Actors fill the stage, effectively drawing the audience into the city’s grime and bubble. Odd-socked Artful Dodger (Josh Benson) strides onto the stage, enveloping it with confidence and cheek. Josh’s previous role as Billy Elliot is enjoyed as he tap dances his way through ‘Consider Yourself at Home’, with the cast moving in-step.
The audience show a tender spot for Fagin (Rory Mulvihill). Wizard of the pickpocket he is robed in a green cloak, crocked nosed and ginger hair with, despite momentarily mistaking himself as a Christian, a Jewish Kippah balancing on top.
Manic and exciting choreography in ‘You’ve got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ has children leapfrogging into a dance, preforming the gymnastics of thievery surrounded by rainbow-coloured bunting formed of stolen handkerchiefs. Fagin’s greedy actions are especially well received.
‘It’s a Fine Life’ sings Nancy (Alexa Chaplin) in a mischievous east-end accent, wearing a provocative red corset dress. Her skirt-lifting performance lets the audience enjoy the cruelty of Dickens’ moral despite the orchestra’s sinister violin and oboe chords indicating a hair-pricking darker mood.
Costumes, choreography, clothing, characters and the orchestra are fascinating. Though, Bill Sykes (Gavin Shaw), is a little disappointing: his top hat is too big and masks his facial expressions. Actors thrive in the grit of the dangerous London and Oliver’s voice warms with the confidence of co-actor Benson.
Knight’s captivating Oliver! provides an appropriately uncomfortable ending, and the audience cannot not help but enjoy the performance.