REVIEW: York Light’s 60th anniversary Oliver! at York Theatre Royal

Food Glorious Food: the Young People’s Ensemble give it plenty in Oliver!. All pictures: Tom Arber

REVIEW: Oliver!, York Light Opera Company, York Theatre Royal, until February 22. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

DAME Berwick Kaler’s 41 years at York Theatre Royal have come to an end, but one company with an even longer run there is still rolling out the productions after 60 years.

York Light have chosen to mark another 60th anniversary by staging Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, first performed in the West End in 1960.

This latest revival of a perennial favourite utilises David Merrick and Donald Albert’s Broadway stage version, here directed and choreographed by Martyn Knight on an expansive set with walkways, bustling London streets, the drab workhouse, smart townhouse and the underworld of Fagin’s dingy den.

The show opens with a death outside the workhouse, and the dead woman being promptly stripped of her necklace by an older woman: welcome to dark Dickensian London.

Rory Mulvihill’s Fagin and Jonny Holbek’s Bill Sikes in York Light’s Oliver!

Once inside, Food Glorious Food bursts into life, the first of so many familiar Lionel Bart songs, choreography well drilled, the young people’s ensemble lapping up their first big moment (even if their bowls are empty already!).

The directorial polish in Hunter’s show is established immediately; likewise, the playing of John Atkin’s orchestra is rich and in turn warm and dramatic. These will be the cornerstones throughout in a show so heavy on songs, with bursts of dialogue in between that sometimes do not catch fire by comparison with the fantastic singing.

This review was of the first night, leaving time aplenty for the acting to raise to the level of the songs, but there really does need to be more drama, for example, from all the adults in Oliver and Dodger’s pickpocketing scene. Likewise, spoiler alert, Nancy’s death scene fails to shock, although Jonny Holbek elsewhere has the menace in voice and demeanour for Bill Sikes. Even his dog Bullseye looks scared of him.

Playing the nefarious Fagin for a second time, with a stoop, straggly hair and wispy beard, stalwart Rory Mulvihill has both the twinkle in his eye and the awareness of the fading of the light, characteristics he brings to the contrasting ensemble numbers You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two and Be Back Soon and the reflective, sombre solo Reviewing The Situation.

Jonathan Wells’s Mr Sowerberry and Annabel Van Griethuysen’s Mrs Sowerberry with Matthew Warry’s Oliver (alternating the role with Alex Edmondson)

Overall, the company could take a lead from Neil Wood’s Mr Bumble and Pascha Turnbull’s Widow Twankey in their hanky-panky I Shall Scream scene, full of humour, sauce and pleasing characterisation.

Alex Edmondson’s truculent Oliver and Jack Hambleton’s chipper Dodger bond well, especially in Consider Yourself; Jonathan Wells’s Mr Sowerberry and Annabel Van Griethuysen’s Mrs Sowerberry are in fine voice. Her singing is even better, creamier you might say, for the Milkmaid, when joined by Sarah Craggs’s Rose Seller, Helen Eckersall’s Strawberry Seller, Richard Bayton’s Knife Grinder and Edmondson’s Oliver for Who Will Buy?, always beautiful and deeply so here.

Emma Louise Dickinson’s Nancy gives Act Two opener Oom-Pah-Pah plenty of oomph, and although As Long As He Needs Me sits uncomfortably on modern ears with its seeming tolerance of domestic abuse, she gives that bruised ballad everything twice over.

Reviewing the present situation, the singing is strong, moving and fun when it should be, but, please sir, your reviewer wants some more from the non-singing scenes, and then he might be back soon.

Charles Hutchinson

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