Sunday 10 January 2016

Oliver! - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music, lyrics and book by Lionel Bart
Directed by Paul Kerryson

The Company

The Christmas decorations may be taken down - but at Leicester's Curve the seasonal family show has another two weeks to run and judging by Friday’s packed, cheering audience it is continuing to bring much festive joy to the city.

Oliver! has always been best suited to a large stage and the Curve's main house proves ideal. Matt Kinley's impressive designs: grim ironmongery for the workhouse; beaten up timbers for Fagin's kitchen including a brilliantly silhouetted St Pauls Cathedral; and chocolate box Georgian for Brownlow's Bloomsbury are ingenious and expansive - though a minor niggle, the portrait of Brownlow’s beloved Agnes isn’t visible to those seated stage left.

Paul Kerryson places this glimpse of Victoriana in a warts and all context, pulling no punches with the tale's underlying sex and violence. It has been a while since the genius of Bart's craft in both lyric and score has been so carefully exposed.

In the title role Albert Hart capture's Oliver's wise naïveté. His presence commands the audience (he is almost angelic in Who Will Buy) and if he wisely avoids singing some of the role's highest notes, it's no big deal. Hart rises above the audience's "aahs" and alongside Joel Fossard-Jones' Artful Dodger, the pair achieve a delightfully cheese-less cheekiness.

Aside from the leading parts, it's the detail of the minor characters that work so well in this take on one of the most English musicals in the canon. We get an early glimpse of the show’s passionate darkness with Jenna Boyd and James Gant (Widow Corney and Beadle Bumble respectively) bringing a neatly worked hint of Carry On humour (another most English genre in itself) to their capers.

Likewise Jez Unwin's ghoulish Sowerberry and Natalie Moore-Williams as his ghastly wife. Inspired direction sees a macabre It's Your Funeral partly played out with the two borne aloft, corpse-like as they sing.

The show's splendour opens up in London of course, where Peter Polycarpou's Fagin (clad in an inspired takis-designed robe) is another musical theatre treat. If his semitic caricature was perhaps a tad too stereotypical, in all other respects the actor’s portrayal of this most complex of villains is as beautifully performed as it is cleverly layered. Reviewing The Situation proving Polycarpou as one of the masters of his craft.

There's more delicious detail in Lucy Thomas' Bet - Nancy's friend - who again brings a shading to this modest role that's rarely seen. Likewise John Griffiths as the principled and patrician Brownlow works well.

Bill Sikes is a cracking turn from Oliver Boot. There's all the traditional scary menace associated with this misogynist thug, yet Boot also cleverly works in a vulnerability. His Sikes struggles with both his love for Nancy and his uncontrollable and ultimately murderous abuse of her.

And then there's Nancy…

Bravely stepping in to the role for the run's final three weeks, Laura Pitt-Pulford again shows her professional devotion to director Kerryson, as long has he needs her. Earning a UK Theatre Awards nomination this time last year for her marvellous Maria (and who knows, if she hadn't have been up against Imelda Staunton's unstoppable Rose, she might well have scooped the gong) one can only hope that the award's assessors are calling in at the Curve to catch Pitt-Pulford’s takeover. I'd go anywhere to see this actress and with good reason. Her powerful As Long As He Needs Me is magnificent, reducing many in the house to tears, whilst the loving sensitivity showed towards Oliver (and which Pitt-Pulford portrayed so well towards the Von-Trapp brats a year ago) displays the skill of a performer who not only exudes excellence, but inspires a respect and affection from her fellow company members that is rarely seen in such sincerity.

It is only on re-listening to Bart's score that his melodic genius truly filters through - and under Jo Cichonska's baton the 11 piece orchestra offer an excellent interpretation. A mention to Guy Button, Steve Cooper and Sophie Gledhill whose strings work skilfully brings out the haunting klezmer riffs that underlie Fagin's performance. Choreographer Andrew Wright goes to town with the show's big numbers. We first see Wright's grand visions kick-off in Consider Yourself and he goes on to bring moments of ingenious wit to I'd Do Anything and of course the carnival of street-vendor splendour that is Who Will Buy.

Paul Kerryson gives a classy treatment to a classic show. With only two more weeks left, you should buy these wonderful tickets!

Runs until 23rd January
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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