Nov 9 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Let’s Twist again

Portobello Town Hall: Wed 8 – Sat 11 Nov 2023
Review by Martin Gray

Consider yourself lucky if you have a ticket for Oliver! at Portobello Town Hall this week – the inaugural stage show since the hall was re-opened as a community run charitable enterprise in June

From the opening shot of a silhouetted Fagin emerging from the dark to the thief lord’s final nod to the audience, Stage Door Entertainment offers up a confident, pacy production, packed with Lionel Bart’s unforgettable songs, perfectly presented.

Aidan O’Brien as Fagin. Pic Jon Davey

Based on Charles Dickens’ beloved novel, it follows orphan Oliver’s journey from London workhouse to high society, along the way encountering grasping undertakers, kindly rich folk and, of course, Fagin’s gang of kid pickpockets.

Barnaby Booth does well as Oliver, capturing his vulnerability and sweetness in what remains a surprisingly underwritten role. Poignant numbers such as Where is Love? and Who Will Buy? help sell the poverty poppet vibe but it’s nice to see him have fun in such happier numbers as I’d Do Anything and Consider Yourself.

The latter song is led by Nathan Fisher as Artful Dodger Jack Dawkins, a suitably swaggering blast of teenage charm, showing Oliver – on the run after escaping his recent role as a ‘delightful’ child coffin follower – that life doesn’t have to be dismal.

plenty to enjoy

Mind, there’s plenty to enjoy in Oliver’s time as an apprentice undertaker, as Kevin McConnachie and Katie Bell deliver terrific turns as slimy Mr Sowerberry and cruel Mrs Sowerberry. And while senior apprentice Noah isn’t there for their big number with Mr Bumble, That’s Your Funeral, Will Lucas-Evans catches the eye in his short stage time.

Connor Greenan (alternate Dodger) with members of the child chorus. Pic: Malik Tajamul.

Speaking of workhouse manager Mr Bumble, who sells Oliver on after the boy dares ask for more gruel following effervescent opening number Food Glorious Food, Darren Coutts is splendid, a super stage presence and deploying a terrific Tyke twang as he sets his lascivious eyes on matron Widow Corney. Fear not for the widow woman, though, as Debbie Beveridge’s feisty femme can handle the old letch.

Also able to look after herself is Nancy, who helps with Fagin’s gang of children and takes a protective role towards Oliver after Dodger rescues him from a lonely life on the road. Carley Duncan brings the character to fiery life, storming the stage in a striking red frock, a one-woman place of safety in a dark, depressing world.

sharply measured

In a commanding physical performance, Duncan easily shifts from the joyful Oom-Pah-Pah to the heartbreaking As Long As He Needs Me, reaching to the rafters with her fine vocals.

‘He’ is Martin Mitchell’s Bill Sikes, child pickpocket turned burglar and worse, a dark presence perfectly announcing himself with the creepy My Name, cleverly staged by co-directors Tommie Travers and Aidan O’Brien. The latter is front and centre as a charismatic, engagingly camp Fagin, telling us exactly who he is with a sharply measured rendition of Reviewing the Situation.

Martin Mitchell as Bill Sikes with Carley Duncan as Nancy. Pic: Malik Tajamul.

What’s not quite so sharp is Fagin’s dialogue in the scene prior to Nancy’s As Long As He Needs Me, the set-up being lost as Fagin’s words are mostly inaudible. O’Brien knows what he’s doing so it was likely a first night technical hitch – Portobello Town Hall wasn’t built with theatre acoustics in mind.

It was a blip, though, with the likes of the kindly Mr Brownlow – a lovely John Lauder – crystal clear under sound designer Mark Simpson.

sensibly stylish

And let’s hear it for the ensembles, children and adult alike, who do a tremendous job conveying the bustle of just-Victorian London – the novel was published as the young Queen ascended the throne – without overcrowding the stage. The harmonies in numbers such as It’s a Fine Life and Who Will Buy? are tip-top, while O’Brien’s choreography is sensibly stylish.

The Child Ensemble. Pic: Malik Tajamul.

There’s not a weak link in the cast – keep an eye and ear out for Brett Herriot’s marvellously Scottish Dr Grimwig – while the music is a particular treat. Musical Director Travers leads a 12-strong orchestra who fill the auditorium with Bart’s songs and incidental music. A special nod goes to violinist and viola player Hilary Turbayne for her precise, tuneful work in Reviewing the Situation.

The performance area is cleverly extended by having the aisles and upper levels used as the streets of London, but some spotlighting would be useful to direct the audience gaze, especially when the action moves upstairs.

serving the narrative

There are no problems with the onstage set, with Keigan Hawthorn’s lighting design always serving the narrative, directing us around MM Sound and Lighting’s adaptable structure, which offers several playing areas. And the costumes, handled by Lesley O’Brien and Millie Franchi, look great, helping our understanding of character and place.

Tommie Travers and Aidan O’Brien direct this production of Oliver! as excellently as Fagin wrangles his pickpockets and it you like musical theatre at all, you’ve got to pick a ticket or two.

Running time: Two and a half hours (including one interval)
Portobello Town Hall, 147-149 Portobello High St, Portobello EH15 1AF.
Wed 8 – Sat 11 Nov 2023.
Evenings: 7.30pm. Mats Fri, Sat: 2pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Ensemble. Pic: Jon Davey.


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