Edinburgh Tabernacle, Edinburgh – until 18 February 2017
A pair of very fine interpretations, backed by a company intent on performing at the peak of their abilities, mark out an Oliver! which aims high but suffers from the constraints of its own conceit. There is never any doubt, however, that this will be a show from which you will leave humming the tunes. All the big numbers are there, as orphan Oliver Twist asks for more, is sold to Sowerberry the undertaker, then runs away to live with Fagin’s gang of pick-pockets.
It is all solidly performed by an ensemble who might have mixed ability, but who know how to work as a unit. And they have plenty of space to do so in a performance space with the stage thrusting right out into the hall and the audience in three rows on either side.
As a production it really takes off after the interval, with that glorious sequence of numbers which goes from Nancy singing Oom Pah Pah, fading to As Long As He Needs Me and then cutting to Oliver at Mr. Brownlow’s house with the reprise of Where Is Love? before going off into the joys of Who Will Buy? and ending up with Fagin Reviewing the Situation.
Individual performances here are solid on many levels. The soloists on Who Will Buy? are particularly bright with some talented dancers among them, while there is a lovely contrast between Ailsa Maplesden’s slightly more mature soprano as Mrs Bedwin and Seumas Cross’s breathy treble as Oliver in Where is Love?
The problem for the production as a whole starts with director Sally Cairns’ concept for the show. Having a big idea to attach to a production of Oliver! is no bad thing in itself. Oliver! is one of the most often staged musicals around, so any production needs something a little different to help it stand out from the rest.
Cairns has built on the fact that Lionel Bart’s follow-up hit to Oliver! was Blitz!, set in London during the German bombing raids of WW2. It is but a small step, then, to move Oliver! from Dickensian London to WW2 London during the Blitz. At a time when children were being orphaned, there was a flourishing black market and generally chaotic conditions.
It certainly works for that Oom Pah Pah number – the idea of Londoners engaging in mass outbreaks of singing in the pub, daring the bombs to fall, is an easy one to engage with. And no need for the tarty corsetry and undergarments which have become a tiresome cliche of most productions.
In fact, it is a most refreshing rendition, giving the meaning of the words back to the song, allowing the very talented Erin Bowden to lend her big, rounded tones to the music as Nancy, with more than able support from Ailish Barry as Bet.
Also working well within the scheme is Fagin’s Reviewing the Situation. Eoin Mullan is a great young Fagin – strong enough as a character to stand up to Lewis Dalgleish’s sneering Bill Sykes but sprightly enough to be a convincing avuncular figure for Joe Gill’s Artful Dodger and the rest of the gang.
However, the idea of setting Oliver! during WW2 is just too jarring with the majority of the plot. If it were inconsequential, that would be fine. But the whole workhouse/orphanage situation feels false and not in keeping with what is known.
One second Seumas Cross’s fine young Oliver is listening to Churchill’s historic announcement of that “no such undertaking has been received” and that Britain is at war with Germany, the next a host of bouncing kids are moaning about gruel and rich men with gout. The figures of Bumble and Widow Corney just don’t ring true, no matter how much James Sharp and Iona Thomson put into their creation.
The difficulty is that in Dickensian London the equation of hunger is with poverty – in WW2 London, hunger is to do with rationing and black markets. Furthermore, the whole complexion of the role of an undertaker changes in wartime when civilian deaths are random and relentless. Shaun Hamilton and Emily Pitt create perfectly acceptable comic Dickensian undertakers as the Sowerberries – channelling The Addams Family in looks – but the characters don’t fit comfortably with this scheme.
The production’s other serious difficulty is the positioning of the band in a room next door to the performance space. It is common for there to be a disconnect between band and performers and Sean Quinn’s sound design does much to smooth over the audible cracks. But cracks there are – notably in the way the band rides over the less confident performers. There is also an issue of who is leading whom, no matter how hard MD Thea Panainte works to get it right.
That said, Oliver! is a robust enough show in itself to withstand such assault. And full marks to Sally Cairns for having the bottle to take the risks in the first place.