YORK Light Opera Company mark 60 consecutive years of performing at York Theatre Royal by presenting Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, 60 years after the musical’s West End debut.
Running from February 12 to 22 in a revival directed by Martyn Knight, with musical direction by John Atkin, the show is based on Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist and revels in such songs as Food, Glorious Food, Oom-Pah-Pah, Consider Yourself and You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two.
Leading the cast of 40 will be Rory Mulvihill, a veteran of the York theatre scene, who will be playing Fagin after a career with York Light that does not quite stretch back 60 years but does run to 35. “I started in 1985 with the summer show Songs From The Shows, which was a cabaret-style show, where I remember I was part of Three Wheels On My Wagon as a cowboy,” he says.
Reflecting on his subsequent myriad York Light roles, he says: “I’ve enjoyed all of them, but the one I’m most proud of is Barnum. It was a tremendous show. Every member of the cast had to learn a circus skill and perform it to full houses. I spent four months going to a circus school three days a week learning how to tight rope walk.”
Rory is playing Fagin for the second time, so he is well qualified to analyse the musical’s portrait of the trickster who runs a den of nimble young thieves in Victorian London’s murky underworld.
“The character is written very differently in the musical from the novel, in a way that makes you feel for him. You know fundamentally he’s a bad person but there’s always something that redeems him,” he says.
“If I had to describe him in three words, I remember there was an advert for creme cakes about 40 years ago and the slogan was ‘naughty but nice’, so I’m going to go with that one.
“I don’t do anything specific to get into character. Someone once said their character builds as they dress up as them and that certainly applies to Fagin as I’ll be having a beard, wig and the iconic long green coat. It certainly helps wearing the costumes to get into character.”
Picking out the differences between the first and second times he has portrayed Fagin, Rory says: “The children involved give Oliver! its dynamic. It’s a different set of kids and crew of course.
“We only have one set of kids this time instead of two. Having done it once, I’m not starting again, I’m building on what I’ve done before. Hopefully I’ll not stumble over the lines and give a better performance.”
A key part of his role is leading the young cast around him. “Whenever you work with kids, it’s difficult to begin with because they’re scoping you out to see what they can/can’t get away with, but once you get over that, it’s a joy.
“They’re now quite relaxed in the company of the adult cast and I’m getting to know them – maybe a bit too cheeky at times. Theatre is the best gift you can give a kid to carry through their life.”
That sentiment takes him back to Leeds-born Rory’s first steps in theatre. “Funnily enough Oliver! was the very first show I was ever in. I played the Artful Dodger in a school production at St Michael’s in Leeds in 1968. It was just by accident really. I was just asked to do the part by the director. That was my introduction to theatre and I’ve been doing it ever since. Now I’ve come full circle with Oliver!”
Rory, who has lived in York since the mid-1980s, worked as a lawyer for more than 30 years, at Spencer Ewin Mulvihill and latterly Richardson Mulvihill in Harrogate, before retraining as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, but he has always found time for a parallel stage career.
In doing so, he has been not only a leading man in multiple musicals but also has played both Jesus and Satan in the York Mystery Plays; York lawyer and railway protagonist George Leeman in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and lately Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army and the outrageous Captain Terri Dennis in Peter Nichols’s Privates On Parade for Pick Me Up Theatre.
Last summer, he set up a new York company, Stephenson & Leema Productions, with fellow actor and tutor Ian Giles, making their June debut with Harold Pinter’s ticklishly difficult 1975 play No Man’s Land.
Now his focus is on Oliver!, performing alongside Alex Edmondson and Matthew Warry as Oliver; Jack Hambleton and Sam Piercy as the Artful Dodger; Emma-Louise Dickinson as Nancy and Jonny Holbeck as the villainous Bill Sikes.
Rory looks forward particularly to singing the climactic Reviewing The Situation. “It’s a tour de force,” he reasons. “You can’t really go wrong with it. It’s a fantastically written song with a beautiful tune, comedy and pathos.
“Lionel Bart clearly thought ‘I’m just going to take the audience’s emotions and put them through the ringer’. So, at the end, they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. A wonderful piece of work.”
As the first night looms on the horizon, will Rory experience first-night nerves, even after all these years? “For me, rehearsals can be more worrisome than being on stage,” he says.
“Performing in front of your peers, certainly for the first time, can be very nerve racking, and it’s getting over that that prepares you for being on stage. By the time you get on stage, you have butterflies of course, but you know you can do it.”
York Light Opera Company present Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, York Theatre Royal, February 12 to 22, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm matinee on both Saturdays. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.