Oliver! by Lionel Bart has been my favourite musical ever since the time we performed some selections from the show at primary school, and I was Oliver, aged 11. Ever since then, I’ve needed very little encouragement to launch into Oom Pah Pah! on any suitable occasion or to recreate my star-turn singing the soppy ‘Where is love’. We watch the film version with the amazing Ron Moody on DVD Oliver [VHS]  frequently at Gaskell Towers, but I’ve never seen it on stage. I’d have loved to see Jonathan Pryce or Robert Lindsay in the previous London production.
So more recently, I’ve been grumbling – well ever since December 2007 actually, when I booked my tickets for the new West End production of Oliver! on the day that booking opened – “Wot a racket – they’ll ‘ave my money at £60 per for over 15 munts ‘fore I see the bloomin’ fing”. (Do excuse the mockney. I come from sarf lunn’n in reality – about ten miles from Bow Bells as the crow flies – it makes all the difference).
Well I shall have to eat my words, because it really was worth the wait. My daughter and I made a day out of it, going up by train in the morning – London Eye first, then over to Covent Garden for light shopping and we eating al fresco watching the street performers before wandering over to the theatre for the matinee performance.
We took our seats and couldn’t believe how lucky we’d been to get central seats in the fourth row of the front stalls – best view in the house in my opinion. Then the overture started, and from the moment the curtain went up, you knew you were in for a treat when you saw the motto ‘God is love’ shining above the workhouse. Then you heard clomp, clomp, clomp and there were all the poor boys (and girls now), with their bowls – even popping up stairs from the orchestra pit and appearing just feet in front of us too. We searched to see which of the Olivers we’d got … it was Gwion! Hurrah – the little cute Welsh Oliver – Brilliant!
For those who don’t know, there was a series on the BBC in 2007 to cast the roles of Nancy and Oliver for this production - I’d do Anything and for weeks we’d been transfixed as the talented performers got whittled down to the winners… Jodie Prenger (see pic) as Nancy and three lads to share the role of Oliver. We had picked out Jodie as the most likely to right from the start, so were delighted she won. By the end of the series, the announcement had been made of who would play Fagin – Rowan Atkinson – an interesting choice we thought, and it made me want to see it even more.
Back to the show – it was marvellous from start to finish. With the largest cast in the West End, it made full use of Drury Lane’s deep stage. The ensemble song and dance numbers were incredible – wonderfully choreographed by Matthew Bourne (he of the male Swan Lake fame), and the sets were stupendous, yet strongly reminiscent of both original stage and film productions.
We finally got to meet Fagin … Dodger called for him, a shabby curtain pulled back and he said “What!” in a way that only Rowan Atkinson could and you instantly knew you would be in safe hands. Atkinson milked his numbers for maximum effect and was fantastic, getting a little Mr Bean joke in with one of his gang’s teddy bear. Then on came Nancy, and Jodie was in fine voice – I nearly cried during the showstopper ‘As long as he needs me’ she sang it so gutwrenchingly. The kids were incredible, especially the lad who played the Artful Dodger. There are also a couple of different songs in the musical version, and Bill Sykes gets to scare everyone rigid with a menacing little number which effectively replaces the “Do you love me Bill” – “I lives with you, don’t I” conversation in the film.
It was absolutely bloomin’ marvellous – one of the best few shows I’ve ever seen, and to think the cast had to do it all again that evening …
P.S. Just read that Iranian actor-comedian Omid Djalili will take over as Fagin in mid July. He’ll probably be very good too, but I’d never have thought of him in the role!