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

Wig, beard, green coat, Rory Mulvihill is ready to steal the show again as Fagin

Rory Mulvihill, donning beard, wig and iconic green coat, to play Fagin for a second time. Pictures: Anthony Robling

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 Mulvihill in the rehearsal room for York Light Opera Company’s production of Oliver!

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.”  

Rory Mulvihille’s Fagin with his two Artful Dodgers, Jack Hambleton and Sam Piercy

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.

Jonny Holbek as Bill Sikes with Roy as Bullseye in York Light Opera Company’s Oliver!

“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.

Rory Mulvihill, centre, as the flamboyant Captain Terri Dennis in Privates On Parade

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.

“Please sir, I want some more…and more”: Matthew Warry and Alex Edmondson, sharing the role of Oliver in York Light Opera Company’s Oliver!

“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.