Review – Oliver!

October 20, 2012 | By More

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Rhona Smith as Dodger (L) and Jacob Merchant as Oliver in Balerno Theatre Company's production of Oliver!. Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh, October 2012. Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

Rhona Smith as Dodger (L) and Jacob Merchant as Oliver in Balerno Theatre Company’s production of Oliver! Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

Church Hill theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin

A great children’s chorus and some top performances of the big set pieces make the Balerno Theatre Company’s production of Oliver! – at the Church Hill Theatre till Saturday – well worth the ticket. If you can get a ticket for the sell-out run, that is.

There’s a jaunty, chirpy and entirely chipper Artful Dodger – Rhona Smith on the night I saw it – and a performance from Michael Davis as Fagin which plays to the strength of the material, not to the gallery.

There are some superb moments from the ensemble, too. The electrifying tingle to the back of the neck with the orphans first enter, tromping from the back of the auditorium in surly ranks, is not just all present and correct but continues well into the opening number Food Glorious Food.

Yet for all that this gets the things right you would hope for – there are a few moments which do not achieve what they set out to.

What is certain, however, is that 52 years on, Oliver! the show endures. Despite the best attempts of Saturday night television to reduce Lionel Barts’ great musical to a series of photo opportunities for Nancy, it remains the story of a workhouse orphan who dares to ask for more.

After shocking the delicate sensibilities of Mr Bumble the Beadle and the workhouse matron, Widow Corney by asking for more, Oliver is sold to the local undertaker, Mr Sowerberry, as a coffin follower – before making his escape to London and life in Fagin’s gang.

Something of a shock…

Balerno TC’s tightly choreographed and chorally superb opening sets it up very well indeed. So Mark MacKenzie-Smith and Katy Williamson’s Bumble and Corney double-act comes as something of a shock. It’s mumble and moany, more like. MacKenzie-Smith and Williamson bumble and bluster through their scene with scarcely any regard for their audience.

Admittedly it is a tricky scene to pull off. Even professional productions tend to rely more on the size of Corney’s bosoms than anything else, so it is a relief that this does at least draw back from plumbing such depths. There are characters available for the performers to explore, however, rather than relying on schoolyard innuendo.

The undertaker scene doesn’t do much to pull the show up, either. Debbie Spurgeon is appropriately sour as Mrs Sowerberry, with Amy Donaldson adding a light air as the flirtatious Charlotte. But the whole scene, with Adrian Smith as Mr Sowerberry and Andrw Marriott as Noah Claypole, ends up feeling under-explored.

Until Jacob Merchant’s wide-eyed Oliver bursts out with a performance of Where is Love?, that is. He reminds exactly why the show is such an enduring success.

Here is the exploration of innocence in jeopardy which is at the heart of Bart’s adaptation of Dickens. And it proves the perfect entry point into the ensuing scenes with Fagin and his gang, where Nancy provides an emotional influence and Bill Sykes a glimpse at pure evil.

From the moment Oliver appears in London and bumps into Fagin’s protégé, the Artful Dodger, the whole production begins to gel. Jacob Merchant and Rhona Smith know how to make the show zing and, by all accounts, their alternates (William Ringham as Oliver and Caitie Taylor as Dodger) are equally up to the job.

They get plenty of help from the principal youngsters in Fagin’s Gang, who keep it moving along with ease as they ask Oliver to consider himself at home. Great stuff which steps nicely into the depths of Fagin’s den and the introduction of Michael Davies as Fagin, Anne Macie as Nancy and Rhea Connor as Nancy’s best pal, Bet.

Indeed the whole sequence, which runs from the comedy – and warning of impending tension – of You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two, to the arrival of Nancy and Bet with It’s a Fine Life and I’d Do Anything to Fagin’s enthusiastic Be Back Soon, shows exactly what the company has go in it.

Nancy (Anne Mackie) with FAgin's Gang singing "I'd Do Anything" in Balerno Theatre Company's production of Oliver!. Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh, October 2012. Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

Nancy (Anne Mackie) with Fagin’s Gang singing “I’d Do Anything” in Balerno Theatre Company’s production of Oliver! Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

There are great musical performances all round – Mackie in particular is a natural and well-rounded Nancy – Audrey Jones’s direction is dynamic and the whole is easily underpinned by Neil Metcalfe’s musical direction from the pit.

It is these set-pieces where the company are at their best. The Act II sequence in the Three Cripples pub gives the senior members of the chorus a chance to enjoy themselves. And their enthusiasm is infectious, if the storytelling slips back a little, musically it is exactly what is needed.

Moving to the Browlow’s house where Oliver, captured after trying to pick a pocket, is taken by his kindly benefactor, gives an pleasing glimpse of alternative life. These scenes are always tricky – it is so easy to become cloying – but this is neatly avoided and there is a great Where is Love? reprise from Emma Merchant as Mrs Bedwin.

Once again, the set-pieces rise through. Helen Anderson, Claire Louise Donlan, Wendy White, John Smith and Adrian Smith, all deserve praise for bringing a sense of potential and new dawn hope to Who Will Buy?. It’s another spine-tingling moment and well-framed too.

This is a company with surprises up its sleeve, however. And there is still plenty of space for the best of time and worst of times to occur.

The best of times comes from Fagin with Reviewing The Situation. It is a gift of a number, who ever is performing it, but Davies takes that gift and makes it his own without hamming it up or going too far over the top. He’s helped by a delicious performance from Claire Taylor on violin in the pit which only emphasises how good the orchestra have been all along.

The worst of times comes with the reappearance of Bumble and Corney – now Mrs Bumble. It’s a crucial scene for the resolution of the plot, where Old Sally makes a deathbed confession to stealing a locket from a dying young mother. It’s the locket which links Oliver to Mr Brownlow, whose daughter was the mother who died in childbirth.

In a wanton act of destruction, Jones has decided to direct this as if it were a sketch from Monty Python. And when the new Mrs Bumble picks up Mhairi Calder’s cackling Old Sally by the neck like a dog with a rag doll, it only underlines just how inappropriately the whole scene is played – on many, many levels. Not to mention the cloud of grey hair powder left drifting across the stage, as Sally is thrown limply to the floor.

This is a production with many fine moments and some great ones, a production which makes good use of its company, and one which sends its audience home humming the tunes. But that grey cloud will always hang over it.

Run ends Saturday.

Balerno Theatre Company website: www.balernotheatre.co.uk

The orphans in the opening scene of Balerno Theatre Company's production of Oliver!. Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh, October 2012. Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

The orphans in the opening scene of Balerno Theatre Company’s production of Oliver!. Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh, October 2012. Photo credit: Alkisti Terzi.

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