NE in Oliver!, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 7.30pm tonight (last few tickets), then next Tuesday to Saturday; 2.30pm matinees, tonight and next Saturday, both sold out. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
CREATIVE director and producer Steve Tearle is playing Fagin for the fourth time in Lionel Bart’s beloved musical account of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
He knows both part and musical inside out – he has appeared in six productions since the late-1970s – but he was determined to freshen it up anew, not so much new twists as more Twist.
NE Musicals York may have stripped back its name temporarily to NE but Tearle has embellished Oliver! with short extra scenes, a “fruitier” frisson to Chris Hagyard’s Mr Bumble and a cast of thousands (well, almost), divided into two teams, Dawkins and Twist, for alternate performances.
Tearle reckons this production is the darkest of NE’s three versions in the past decade – 2015, 2018 and 2022 – signified by the thunder and dark Victorian attire of the opening and wholly encapsulated in the menacing performance of Eric Jensen’s jemmy-wielding Bill Sikes.
Last spotted on stage pushing Priscilla the bus and being a bigoted bar-room rowdy in the Aussie outback in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical, Jensen graduates to a principal role – after the original Sikes had to withdraw for health reasons – with aplomb.
If your reviewer says he even murdered My Name – his big, brutal song in the spotlight – it is meant in the most positive way. By his side, unlike Bill, Bonnie behaves impeccably in the canine spotlight as his English bull terrier, Bullseye.
Anyway, we digress. The opening number sets out Tearle’s stall as 45 children explode from everywhere in a burst of stamping feet to fill the stage for the workhouse number Food, Glorious Food. Tearle has adapted Robert Readman’s My Fair Lady set, utilising its framework for a walkway and to present scenes on a mezzanine level, and he is not averse to his cast frequenting the aisles too in a blur of mischief-making.
His Fagin and Zachary Pickersgill’s Oliver even make use of the orchestra pit, when seeking cover from being found. (You will note too the decking out of the pit apron in dockside wood in a striking designer’s flourish.)
Space aplenty is necessary for the ensemble scenes, whether in the pub, the streets, the workhouse, or Fagin’s den of young pickpockets. Tearle’s passion for community theatre is emblazoned across these scenes, so full of life, filling the stage at every opportunity, whether with Fagin’s Gang, Tearle’s young charges relishing taking their early steps on the boards, or with the ever-enthusiastic adult chorus.
Ellie Roberts’s choreography revels in having to accommodate so many limbs, typified by the outstanding Oom-Pah-Pah, while bringing personality to the oh-so-familiar set-piece numbers. Who Will Buy? is a particular delight.
Tearle’s scheming yet lily-livered crook Fagin, Jensen’s bruiser Sikes and Hagyard’s amusingly slimy, meddlesome beadle Mr Bumble will be appearing in all the performances, as will Kelvin Grant’s upstanding Mr Brownlow and Tom Henshaw’s antagonistic undertaker Mr Sowerberry.
CharlesHutchPress saw Thursday’s company, so please forgive no mention of the alternate cast when praising Maia Beatrice’s heartbreaking Nancy (As Long As He Needs Me); Fiona Cameron’s heartless, on-the-make Widow Corney (I Shall Scream); Melissa Boyd’s gothic Mrs Sowerberry (That’s Your Funeral) and Scott Kendrew’s smug bully, Noah Claypole.
Zachary Pickersgill is fearless in the title role, as mobile as a dancer in moving around the stage, and not fazed by that most difficult of songs for a young voice, Where Is Love?. Whether cheeky, defiant, angry, or searching for love amid constant change and adversity, he could not give more to his orphan Oliver.
Toby Jensen hits his groove as a suitably artful Dodger, leading Consider Yourself with swagger, but one tip: keep the head up to look the audience in the eye, projection being so vital to giving off the all-important air of self-confidence that will carry through to the finale with its foretelling of the post-Fagin era.
Rather than cor-blimey, apples-and-pears Cockernee accents, Tearle and his cast are not so specific about placing Oliver! in London’s East End. That ensures clarity throughout, save for the occasional line that needs more volume or those moments when the band overpowers the singing in the sound balance.
Tearle’s Fagin is arch, devious, but he finds the humour in the old rogue too, whether in improvised asides (such as when struggling to put on his coat), or in his signature song, Reviewing The Situation, where he reviews the song in progress and banters with violinist Olivia Virgo.
He excels in his costume designs too, while Scott Phillips’s orchestra is a joy, flowing between strings and brass, equally adept at the uptempo and the contemplative grand ballad.
All in all, this is an Oliver! with more: more detail, more cast members, more humour, more drama, more shows, spread over two weeks. What more encouragement do you need to join Fagin’s gang and co? If you don’t go, well, that’s your funeral.
Review by Charles Hutchinsion