Oliver! The Musical

Date 17th March 2024
Society Manx Operatic Society
Venue Gaiety Theatre
Type of Production Musical
Director Jeremy Tustin & Marilyn Mawdsley
Musical Director Chris Sullivan
Choreographer Jeremy Tustin & Tracey McCann
Written By Lionel Bart

Report

Author: Nate Benson

Many thanks to Manx Operatic Society for inviting me to their 75th Anniversary performance of the legendary ‘Oliver’, performed at the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas. I was fortunate to be invited to watch 2 performances of the production, with alternate casts for 3 of the principles on the alternate performances. This report is based on the showing of the Sunday 17th March 2024 matinee performance. 

Oliver! Is 1960 a stage production by written by Lionel Bart based on the Charles Dicken’s novel ‘Oliver Twist’, which is most famously known for the nostalgic 1968 movie musical of the same name. It tells a grim tale of a Victorian orphan of the title name, who falls through British society’s systems of the time & finds himself amidst a gang of pick pockets, where he is caught and, with forgiveness & compassion, is restored within the family he ought to have been brought up within. Along the way of this narrative, we meet some remarkably familiar characters, namely Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy & Bill Sykes, & are faced with the underpinning themes of class divide, gender power struggles, survival instincts & the ambivalence of human consciousness. 

When producing a story as nostalgic as Oliver! it is a very tricky task to even begin to do the work justice, mostly because the expectations of the audience are preset from the infusion of the movie within most of the populations’ childhood memories. It is here I would like to commend the production team, who included Jeremy Tustin as director & choreographer, Marilyn Mawdsley as assistant director & Tracey McCann as dance captain, for not only retelling this story, keeping the integrity of these expectations, but also for taking the work far beyond the thematic within the film version, re-introducing some of the more sinister themes alluded to within the novel to the surface of the show, such as domestic abuse, child abuse & trafficking. These themes were presented using varied theatrical styles & elements which blended creatively into the narrative, retaining cohesion & pushing boundaries to ensure the dark & at times perverse notions were reflected inoffensively, & in doing to holding the mirror up on these matters into today’s society. This was also done so in a way which remained truthful to the family friendly feel to the show & so retaining the nostalgia one would expect, leaving the audience refreshingly challenged, yet satisfied from their attendance. The overarching style of the production I describe as akin to a Tim Burton movie, with the sinister undertones matched with quirky heightened characterisations, yet with depth & integrity to intent. The blocking of the production was dynamic & interesting, using every opportunity to ensure the social economic divides which underpinned main statement of the production, were highlighted, through enabling moment’s where higher society observers' reactions to the workhouse & the chain of authority within the hierarchy were apparent, even when not directly apart of the action. I also loved additional attention to detail with was added throughout the production, such as showing Oliver’s mother’s death upon childbirth enacted in a naturalistic, mime style as a part of the overture, including the blatant theft of her necklace pendant from the workhouse nurse, setting the barbaric undertones from the outset. Choreography was detailed & blended within the action seamlessly. The entire show utilised varying uses of levels & heights which added to the visual intrigue & the attention to detail was extended throughout the movement. I loved how individual character retention was sustained through the choreography, ensuring characterisation drove the story forwards. There was one significant piece of choreography which stood out as a piece of dance theatre in itself, which was the reprise of ‘Who Will Buy’ in which the chorography  flip flopped between staged physical theatre, choreographed sections of unison & simultaneous featured segments & it also infused the concept of street theatre which was au fait with the entertainment of the period, using a Pierrot, ballerina & weightlifter to heighten the intrigue & authenticity of the street scene moment. 

Musical Direction was undertaken by Chris Sullivan. I must firstly say, with the privilege being given 2 opportunities to watch the show, I was given opportunity to witness Chris’ absorption into his lyricism when conducting, it was as if a piece of choreography within itself! The sound created from the 9-person orchestra was nothing short of phenomenal, recreating the score with finesse, reviving the nostalgic feel of the work. There was some interesting arrangements & dynamics to the score, created through the integration of the unique characterisation & emphasising unexpected lyrics, which brought about some unique interpretations & intent of phrases, matching the quirky feel mentioned earlier in the review to the music of the show. The levels of harmonics & wall of sound were triumphant, bringing together the strong orchestration & 55-person strong vocal, whom, at all moments, were at perfect pitch & blend. This also included 5 booth singers bolstering the male vocal arrangements offstage. 

The set involved a full breadth raised bridge upstage with 2 staircases on show leading to the more central downstage point from either side of the platform. This was also accessible through hidden upstage staircases adding additional coordination to staging of the production. Behind the bridge was a floor to ceiling LED Screen which animated the skyline to each of the scenes & added dimension to the hollow of the bridge, which were particularly effective within the scenes set inside. Trucks, flies, & furniture were brought in as an when required to further situate the scene locations & add additional intrigue & context to the scenes. Costumes were also truthful & detailed to the context, characters, themes, & period of the production & both set & costume were used within the action to ensure pace & animation were maintained throughout. Lighting was also detailed with excellent design to put the cherry on top of the aesthetic. On top of the bridge were Victorian streetlamps which were lit when the scenes were presented in an exterior location at nighttime, & there was a scene where a member of the cast’s job was to ensure these were lit in context with the period. There was great subtlety within the design, such as gentle shading of hue saturation within a scene to enable heighted dramatics, often unnoticeably. 

Holistically the entire the entire cast had individual depth to their characterisations, which infused a bitter sense of naturalism to the sinister feel of the production. This was instilled in all moments within the production & across all the disciplines. Within the chorus, it was a delight to see such competent execution of fast paced, highly technical choreography. The 4 featured choral members in the ‘Who Will Buy’ number were a special treat as this was a gorgeous moment of musical drama heightened with the vastly different, but entwining timbres of the selected voices. 

The children’s chorus, which included Fagin’s gang, Bet's gang & the orphans were a delight to watch as there was full investment across the entire compliment. What is more is 10 of the children had never performed on a production of this scales, and many with never performing musical theatre, which is a testament to them and the society for providing this opportunity. They had exceptional energies & there was a great synchronisation within them across characterisations, harmonics & counter melodies & throughout all movement & choreographed opportunities. It would be safe to say from watching this production, the future of theatre is safe on Manx for years to come with the demonstration achieved by this group within the cast! 

On the performance of this review the part of Oliver was played by Morgan Smith who portrayed the character with an innocence & naivety which transposed into great vulnerability which carried the empathy of the audience. This part was played well with great acting & great vocal ability demonstrated. The Artful Dodger was played by WIlliam Cowley who gave a shining, charismatic performance of this cheeky character. This was particularly notable through the physicality of the character, linking movement to word, & the outstanding execution of technical choreography while retaining truthful to the character at all moments, to lead a full choral number ‘Consider Yourself’ retaining the focus & mastery of the moment is no mean feat, but to do so shining above the other characters in the moment being 13 years old & in a first character role onstage, is beyond words which I have within my vocabulary. The role of Bet was played by Holly Callow who provided an awesome physical character & a strong vocal ability & brought an empathetic rapport with Nancy, which heightened the emotive response within the character upon her death. 

The role of Fagin was played by Mark Dougherty who commanded the stage, owing every moment he was present providing immense storytelling. His characterisation took attributed of the film characterisation but added additional elements to deepen, darken & even give a comedic flair to the role, which was charmingly played, showing prominent levels of vocal skill & talent. He also provided continually changing physical characteristics, adding a chameleon style characterisation, shifting to appear neutral & inconspicuous in relationships with other characters. The shape shifter was grounded, using repeated nuances of hand & finger gestures & character motifs which added to his charm. 

Widow Corney & Mr Bumble were played by Nikki Openshaw & Chris Maybury who brought fabulous characterisations to the stage. Their heighten, somehow slapstick, style characters brought a light-hearted comedy nature to the sometimes-crass subject matters brought about the stage. They had great chemistry onstage together and highlighted the gender power struggle perfectly in contrast to the dominance of Bill Sikes over Nancy. Old Sally played by Carrie Hazeel who delivered the part well in a similar style to the above. 

Mr & Mrs Sowerbury were played by David Lyons & Lynsey Smith who brought a perverse undertone to the show, with Mr Sowerbury portrayed as a creepy paedophile, which pushed me to the edge of my comfortability to watch. This was contrasted by a strong witted and charismatic Mrs Sowerbury which lighted the energy enough to continue the narrative, allowing for these themes to be presented. Both actors brought depth to these characters and their moment in song were a delight, Charlotte was played by Matilda Clague & Noah Claypole was played by Daniel Lawrie who both played these parts well with a great connection between the pair. They echoed the energies of the bumbles and replayed some of the gender power themes 

The part of Nancy was played by Victoria McLauchlan who provided fabulous storytelling and played the part very charismatically, not steering far from the movie character, and so instantaneously gaining the audience love & affection. Victoria provided epic vocals and the number ‘As Long as He Need Me’ was a masterclass in acting through song. Juxtaposed across from this familiar character was Bill Sikes, who was played by Jonathan Sleight. This part was played with an air of sinister mystery, with breathy vocal work, bringing the maximum miserliness to the role. Adding to this was a gravely quality of tone, heightened dynamics, and a vast amount of subtlety, which in contrast to the loveable Nancy, brought about a highly impactful articulation on the domestic abuse theme. His (at times) devoted sidekick, Bullseye, was played by Caspar was a wonderful touch & to witness on one of the productions our canine companion dashing off an alternate exist to the strategically places treat, was a testament to the casts’ character retention through mishap and a pleasant reminder that live theatre is ‘real’ and a reminder of the magic our beloved artform brings to our lives.  

Finishing the named cast were John Snelling, Mike Devereau & Katy Kneale playing Mr Brownlow, Dr Grimwig & Mrs Bedwin who played these parts well, giving a glimpse outside of the stereotype formed against the upper classes previously within this show & offered a sense of compassion within the Brownlow household & an uncertainty within the Dr’s thought process & so offering a challenge to the before seen judgemental & unforgiving comment previously stated throughout the production. 

Thanks again for the opportunity to watch and provide review on such a wonderful and powerful piece of theatre and I wish Manx Operatic Society & its member all the absolute best for future productions.