Oliver!

Date 14th February 2024
Society Brighton Theatre Group
Venue Theatre Royal, Brighton
Type of Production Musical
Director Michael Burnie
Musical Director Carl Greenwood
Choreographer Jodie Michele
Producer Keith Shepherd
Written By Lionel Bart

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Author: Susanne Crosby

Oliver! is one of those classic musicals that has woven itself into the fabric of British culture, and far more people will be familiar with the show than have read the Charles Dickens original novel ‘Oliver Twist’. Nostalgia almost demands that we see a recreation faithful to the original, yet it still needs to have freshness and appeal to a modern audience: tricky expectations to manage.

Brighton Theatre Group has met those expectations in spades, complete with real live Bullseye the Dog! This was a professional standard production, using a multi-functional set with staircases, ladders through trap doors and pieces that moved noiselessly in transition. The lighting was exquisite: lighting sometimes through haze, making colours and shapes and funnels of light creating the ambience of London’s smoke and smog filled streets and bars. The multi locations were depicted sometimes by furniture, as in the office of Mr Bumble in the workhouse, or with rolled on flats including a working door in the Funeral Directors parlour, which also had a coffin to lock poor Oliver in.

The costumes were gorgeous: all completely in keeping with the time period and looking posh and expensive or dirty and grimy where needed. Some cast multi-rolling had several different costumes, and even if they were on for only minutes, their costumes were perfect.

Where this show truly excelled was in the big numbers, with the stage filled with performers expertly choreographed through crowd scenes and breakout dance routines. The skill on show in the dancing, including high jetés and cartwheels is a treat for the eyes; combine that with singing well known numbers to a live orchestra filling the whole place with cheer: it’s a feast for the senses. They have created the most fabulous shapes everywhere you look, using height, and props, contemporary and old musical styles of dance. Choreographer Jodie Michele has really outdone herself.

The children were drilled and performed so very well: walking down the steps in morose unison with their bowls about to have gruel when they wanted ‘Food Glorious Food’ which was super. ‘Consider Yourself’ was wonderfully done, and ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ was another of the standout numbers with masses of choreographed characters, and everyone joining in with the gusty singing led by Lucia Romero Clark as Nancy. Her solo ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ was powerful and rich and filled with such complex layers of emotion: bitterness, anger, vulnerability: it was exposing and very raw; and with the halo of pink light resting on her shoulders was truly beautiful. Her whole performance was standout and glorious, as was Elias Prosser as Dodger: cheeky, edge of teen, loveable rogue to be. He had impressively high heel click jumps, all while singing. Christian Ridley held the stage completely alone in a follow spot so sweetly as Oliver in ‘Where Is Love’ and showed some lovely vulnerability. Among other fine performances is Hannah Garred, hilarious as the chin-first Widow Corney, with a great added detail of putting gin behind her ears in order to be alluring to Mr Bumble. H Reeves had lovely stage presence as Mr Sowerberry and was suitably creepy and slimy, plus he played drunk really well, which is curiously hard to do, and so many actors get wrong. With a complete cast of over 50 according to the programme it’s impossible to single everyone out, suffice to say it was a joy to see such attention to detail in all the performances, and acting throughout, nobody ever dropped. Sometimes actors (elsewhere) concentrate on the singing at the expense of acting and thankfully here they acted through song, which even West End shows sometimes miss.

It was Jake Beniston’s performance as Fagin which made this show something truly special. Not content to copy, he made this role his own by adding a little flavour of Jack Sparrow from the ‘Pirates’ franchise, and the show is richer for it. His wheedling gait, wide eyed feigned innocence, getting wrapped up in the music and even ad libbing with the audience all added such richness and welcome surprise, and less like the stereotyped trope we all are used to which would jar with current thinking. His performances of ‘You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two’ with the boys was so funny, and his duet with the clarinet in ‘Reviewing the Situation’ was especially triumphantly brilliant, maximising the space and showing real inner conflict in a hilarious way.

It is always so wonderful to have a real live orchestra that not only plays beautifully but responds to the actors on stage. Congratulations to Carl Greenwood for Musical Direction and the whole orchestra for their perfect playing. Accolades of the highest order need to go to Director Michael Burnie for a truly excellent show, for assembling such a wonderful team of skilled and talented creatives both on stage and off.

This is a slick, well-oiled show that showed the fresh eagerness of telling a story and entertaining. A joyful, uplifting piece of theatre that will stay sweetly in audience members' memories.