Sparkling Oliver is right at home

Picking pockets: Neil Morrissey as Fagin taking a lesson in GCSE thieving with his young students in one of the early criminal classes.

Oliver!

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

OLD Fagin and his band of junior thieves are still out there picking pockets but no one in the audience could feel robbed by this spectacular show - the latest incarnation of Lionel Bart's 1960 musical.

The sets (Totie Driver and  Adrian Vaux) are wonderful – you even get a tour of London in the background – the lighting (Paule Constable) is atmospheric and dramatic, the costumes (Anthony Ward) convincing and there isn't a weak link in the cast of thousands – well 50 or so.

Choreography, incidentally, is by Matthew Bourne, who knows a thing or two about bringing music to life on stage and the chorus numbers and ensemble pieces are a delight to both see and hear, always looking busy and interesting and never crowded or cluttered. Who will buy is the big stage number of the production and in his safe hands it became a show all on it's own.

This is a night of solid entertainment led by Neil Morrissey as Fagin, my dear. Morrissey is a much underrated actor and anyone who saw his brilliant portrayal of Raymond in Rain Man a couple of years ago will know there is much more to Morrissey than Tony in BBC sit com Men Behaving Badly.

Happy Hour down at The Three Cripples hostelry with Samantha Bark as Nancy putting some wellie into Oom Pah Pah

His East End Jewish accent is convincing, and we even get a Bob the Builder line thrown in, another of the strings to his bow. Not knon for his singing he nevertheless produces some memorable musical numbers from You've Got To Pick a Pocket or Two to his solo Reviewing the Situation.

His Fagin gives us a mostly amiable, if not quite lovable, rogue although there is a hint of menace when he is crossed or his nice little earner put in danger and sheer terror when confronted by the neighbourhood psychopath, nutters-r-us  Bill Sikes played by Iain Fletcher on the other side of the law from his regular gaff as DC Rodney Skase in The Bill.

Sikes is one of the great villains of world literature and there is no hint of terror here - this is full on, in yer face (hopefully without a broken bottle attached) menace with about the only likeable thing about him being his dog, Bull's-Eye. Sike's solo My Name! is snarled rather than sung and he got well deserved boos at the end. A cracking baddy with a cracking moll in Nancy, or at least she was pretty cracked after he battered her with his club on London Bridge. Told you he wasn't a nice bloke.

Nancy was played with bags of confidence by Samantha Barks who came third in BBC's I'd Do Anything. She has the big solo of the show, As Long as He Needs Me and belts it out with plenty of power, laced with a few ladles of emotion.

And speaking of ladles, this is a show about Oliver who started it all off for asking for more gruel in the workhouse run by Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, Jack Edwards and Suzie Chard putting in an amusing shift.

Harry Polden is a suitably naïve and unworldly wise Oliver with a pleasant voice and mild manner, who teams up with the excellent Max Griesbach, from Solihull, revelling in the role of the Artful Dodger to set him forth on a short, unsuccessful life of crime.

Indeed all the kids in the workhouse and Fagin's gang seem quite at home on stage with a slick, accomplished performance.

There was good support as well from the undertakers Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Ashley Artus and CJ Johnson, and their help Charlotte , Victoria Hay, and Noah Claypole, played by Stevie Hutchinson.

Neil Morrissey's Fagin heads off into the sunset to an uncertain future after Reviewing the Situation

And, from the respectable part of town we had Stephen Moore as kindly Mr Brownlow, Oliver's long lost grandfather.

 Moore has an impressive CV in theatre, TV and film but more than all that – he was the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the original radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

Fame or what!

Oliver! Is all good, solid entertainment although perhaps for what is a family show – and there were plenty of young children in the audience – a couple of rather graphic examples of the Clerkenwell edition of the Kama Sutra might have been left on the drawing board for Oom-Pah-Pah.

We can work out that The Three Cripples is a rough old pub, full of low lifes, ladies of the night, or at least areas not too light, thieves and vagabonds without horizontal illustration.

There were also a few sound problems in that some dialogue or words were not heard too clearly – not a problem with Morrissey incidentally – but overall there was little to fault in Cameron Mackintosh's production directed by Laurence Connor.

A mention too for the excellent 14 piece orchestra under Toby Higgins. Fourteen musicians is a lot for a touring show these days but the difference in numbers is evident with a sumptuous, full sound which sets off every number.

Morrissey and Samantha Barks continue in their roles until April 1 with Brian Conley taking over as Fagin and Cat Simmons as Nancy for the rest of the run to 21-04-12.

Roger Clarke

And for those asking for a little more . . .

*****

NOW in its 52nd year, this remarkable Lionel Bart musical is still pulling in big audiences and the latest Cameron Mackintosh production has people on their feet cheering and asking for more.

Not too much has changed since the original launch, but new actors take over the key roles, adding something of their own personality, and the latest to play that crafty old crook, Fagin, is Stafford-born Neil Morrissey.

He's no Ron Moody, but he fits snugly enough into the part and, well known as the voice of Bob the Builder, manages to squeeze in the line 'Can he fix it? Yes he can'.

Morrissey certainly fixes it as the veteran London thief and leader of the gang of young pickpockets who recruit Oliver Twist when he escapes from the workhouse, and he impresses with the hit number 'You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two' in his thieves' kitchen.

But all actors are warned about the dangers of performing with children, and Solihull's Max Griesbach shows just why as he captures the hearts of the customers with a sparkling performance as the Artful Dodger.

Harry Polden, at 12 the oldest of the three lads playing Oliver during the run of the show, is also full of confidence, and Samantha Barks - third in Andrew Lloyd Webber's I'd Do Anything BBC TV show - delights as Nancy, girlfriend of the thug Bill Sikes, played with much menace by Iain Fletcher.

Good comedy, too, from Jack Edwards (Mr Bumble) and Suzie Chard (Widow Corney).

Wonderful sets and great lighting help capture the mood of the times in a terrific show directed by Laurence Connor, with Matthew Bourne's choreography and Toby Higgins' musical direction.

Oliver runs to 21-04-12.  In entertainment terms, you couldn't ask for more.

Paul Marston 

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