Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh – until 2 December 2017
There’s a fascinating concept behind the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s production of Oliver!, at the Pleasance Theatre until Saturday evening. The simple idea is that there is not a child performer in sight. And while it loses the glorious effect the treble voice can have on Lional Bart’s score, it allows director Erica Belton to open up the festering sore which is Victoria London and bring it to light without the sanitising sauce and saccharine more usually present.
Oliver! has plenty of darkness to find. It’s not just a great musical – it is a tale of child slavery, prostitution and domestic abuse. Workhouse Orphan Oliver Twist asks for more gruel and is punished by being sold to an undertaker. He escapes to London, falls in with a gang of child thieves and prostitutes, and is redeemed when a benefactor, Mr Brownlow, realises Oliver is his grandson.
Hints at the impending darkness are there in the opening Food Glorious Food. Children grow up very fast in extreme situations of starvation or poverty and there is a real malevolence between the workhouse children as they jostle for a drop of gruel, which a company of innocent school kids would find it hard to portray.
The first real sit-up-in-the-seat moment comes during I Shall Scream, when the Beadle and Widow Corney who run the workhouse are alone in her rooms. Often played as a harmless flirtation between equals – or, worse, for comic relief – it is here given a much more cutting performance by supercilious Richard Blaquiere as the predatory Beadle and Chloe Simpson as the tough widow.
In the light of the ongoing very public conversations about abuses of power in the workplace and institutionalised sexual predation, the scene becomes very different indeed to the one normally presented – and all the better for it.
Oliver’s sale to the Sowerberrys is not the most elegant staging of the scene ever created, but it works as the show rattles along at pace.
But when Yann Davies’s Oliver sits down in the undertaker’s floor to sing Where is Love, a shadowy dance element looms out of from among the coffins. The tragedy of his mother’s downfall – and the culpability of her father, Brownlow, in her death by throwing her out after she was raped – is played out behind him. Once again, it’s a welcome addition to the staging.
Not having children play Oliver and Dodger has other advantages. Davies’s Oliver is less of a victim than in some productions. In You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two, where he is learning to pick pockets, Fagin is as condescending as usual, but the reason that Oliver fails to retrieve his handkerchief is that he has been too busy lifting several far more valuable items without Fagin noticing.
Another of Belton’s innovations is the gender-blind casting of Ashleigh More as Dodger and Kathryn Salmond as Fagin. More is light of foot and she has all Dodger’s mannerisms well covered, while her voice does the score complete justice.
Salmond’s Fagin is oily and conniving as you would expect. Fairly unremarkable, in fact, until he starts Reviewing the Situation that is. Again, the shadows of imagination come alive- this time to illustrate the blind alleys down which his ideas of redemption take him. Without being corny about it, choreographer Kathryn Young brings another level of meaning to the stage.
The number itself is a gift to a strong performer with an eye for bravura storytelling. Salmond, however, takes it down soft and subtle. Her Fagin is truly doubtful of the future while Andrew Taheny’s glistening violin solo from the pit really adds to the atmosphere.
Against all this extra depth, Grace Dickson has her work cut out to keep her portrayal of Nancy in the limelight. It’s Nancy’s redemption which provides one of the show’s main moral strands, a fact which Belton keeps clear, while helping Dickson make the shadow of Bill Sykes all the more sinister and violent.
Her take on It’s A fine Life is particularly well thought through. Dickson rattles along nicely, raising a great laugh with the rest of the gang. But when the lyrics turn to her own situation – mention of her bruises and life with Bill Sykes – it seams that everyone else on stage has got something better to do than listen to her.
Her voice lowers, the hubbub of background chat rises and you realise that you are watching a community choosing to look away when witness is being made to the violence in its midst.
For all its great ideas – and their splendid realisation – this is not a faultless production. It’s chief failing is a lack of preparedness – too many of the between-song acted parts feel under-rehearsed and slack. Some productions leave them out completely – but Belton’s scheme demands them and they, in turn, demand more application to detail.
The production is not without its beautiful moments, either. There’s no disguising the utter joy of Who Will Buy, no matter how desperate you make the sellers of roses, milk and knife-grinding services. As the different street-seller’s cries build up to the point where Oliver joins in, it becomes the joyful celebration of a beautiful morning, no matter what your circumstances might be.
This is a hugely political rendition of a much loved musical that is in danger of becoming stale from over-exposure. The production is not without its technical faults – and desperately needs tightening up in parts – but any true fan of Oliver! will be intrigued to find out just how far it can be taken, while still maintaining its integrity.