Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Oliver! is in rude health at The Watermill

Oliver! How's that bearing up after 50 years? It's in the rudest of health whilst in the care of The Watermill Theatre

Oliver! How's that bearing up after 50 years? It's in the rudest of health whilst in the care of The Watermill Theatre. What a show!

It does what they always do at the Watermill, buzzes with energy, talent and imagination. The direction and choreography can leave you breathless, especially in the confined space of the theatre.

Maybe it's not quite as stunning as last year's Calamity Jane, but then I doubt anything could be. It certainly runs it close.

Lionel Bart's take on the Charles Dickens classic is pretty much unabated misery for the first 95%, then it turns up with a happy ending because the master storyteller was always a bit soppy like that - nearly always, A Tale of Two Cities doesn't end so well for Sidney Carter...but let's move on.

Bart's job was to turn this misery into fun which he did by writing cheerful songs like Food Glorious Food sung by starving children, Where Is Love from the orphaned Oliver Twist himself, Oom Pa Pa sung by the entire ensemble for no apparent reason and the piercing As Long As He Needs Me from an obsessed Nancy.

Then there's Be Back Soon which nowadays we would cover in a Post-It note on the fridge but from which Bart managed to milk five minutes - extremely well-played minutes mind you.

We know we're in for something different from the moment we enter the auditorium: the stage is set as a dark and forbidding industrial interior with grinding noises and steam sound effects. We are clearly in a place where well-to-do people don't venture.

And it doesn't really get much brighter, except in the few instances when Oliver breaks out of this underground, under-the-radar world - no letters about radar please!

Inevitably most of the parts are played as caricatures because that's how Dickens created them, they have little choice. And that takes some sting out of what is a harsh, bullying and exploitative world.

And then there's Fagin, a morally ambiguous thief-master who looks after his boys on the absolute condition that they look after him. Would this character be allowed on stage in a modern musical? He plies the boys with gin, encourages them all to sleep in his basement and teaches them to steal: not really much of a role model.

But he is played beautifully by Cameron Blakely who transfixed us every time he was on.

Aiice Fearn as Nancy is also a delight and Kit Orton as Bill Sykes is suitably threatening and besotted at the same time.

The Watermill has been doing this kind of musical on a grander and grander scale for over 20 years. this must be its pinnacle with a three troupes of orphans being employed across the run as well as a strong cast of actor/dancer/musicians.

It makes excellent use of the space both in the central space and to the sides and on a mezzanine level so it's often busy but never crowded.

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