Re-Review: Oliver!, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

“Shut up and drink your gin”

When I first heard about this offer of tickets for 5 West End shows for £70 from the Groupon website, I thought it was too good to be true but after a twitter buddy convinced me to take the plunge, I can honestly say it is a great deal. I now have front centre stall tickets for 5 shows that I would not perhaps have ever gotten round to seeing for the princely sum of £14 each. So keep your eyes peeled for a similar offer if it comes up again. The first of my shows was a revisit to Oliver! as there’d been a substantial cast change since I last saw it and it has announced that it is closing, in order to make way for Shrek in the spring of next year.

The story of Oliver Twist, a workhouse orphan who ends up on the streets of Victorian London but soon finds a new life with Fagin and his group of pickpockets. When it turns out Oliver is pretty rubbish at crime and he gets caught, a wealthy man takes pity on him but his new compatriots including the vicious Bill Sikes, the chirpy Artful Dodger and the mothering Nancy set out to get him back with tragic consequences.

This production directed by Rupert Goold had two of its roles originally cast through the BBC1 reality show I’d Do Anything, Jodie Prenger as Nancy and three Olivers were ultimately selected and most have now moved on. But it remains much the same show with its highly impressive set with its ever-changing backdrops and layers providing a visual treat along with a huge cast, some nifty choreography and a freshness to the new orchestrations and arrangements of the songs we all know so well, like ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Food Glorious Food’ and in the set pieces for these songs, this production is simply delightful, none more so than in my personal favourite, ‘Who Will Buy’.

This is probably quite naff, but I have a certain fondness for Russ Abbot as I have great memories of Saturday afternoons spent at my Aunty Jean and Aunty Mary’s house watching television and the Russ Abbot Show, with Bella Emberg as well, is something that sticks in my mind and reminds of those simpler times. I was quite shocked to see that he is only 63, as I was sure he was considerably older than my parents but apparently not, but he does a grand job here as a less creepy Fagin than Atkinson, more avuncular and unafraid of the broader comedic touches which went down a storm (there’s a Lady GaGa reference now). William Pearce made for a very sweet Oliver and we had Jacques Miché as Dodger who was good fun and a most enthusiastic dancer. And I was surprised at just how dark and brutal Steven Hartley’s Bill was, but it was most effective.

I have to admit to not really being a huge fan of Kerry Ellis, I’m not entirely sure why but there’s something a little clinical about her for me, and so it was here for me. Vocally she is very strong and secure but there wasn’t much lyrical precision in ‘Oom Pah Pah’ and to be honest, up close, there didn’t seem to be much going on behind the eyes, not enough emotion in her performance to make you believe that Nancy really cares for her boys. Part of this is probably because I was a huge fan of Jodie Prenger, but others in the interval also commented on how it seemed like she was kind of going through the motions.

It was really nice to be able to revisit this show and from such amazing seats, it made a considerable difference from being up in the gods and very much added to the experience. When the oh-so-familiar songs are in full flow and the cast is in full voice and dancing around, this is a truly joyous production. There are moments when it drags, in the second half in particular, and it will be nice to welcome a new musical to this theatre next year, but I’d quite happily recommend this stalwart for a good old-fashioned musical treat.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 8th January 2011, Griff Rhys Jones rejoins the production as Fagin from 6th December
Note: some use of strobe lighting and a loud noise towards the end

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