Consider yourself one of the best

Ready to pick a pocket or two: Tom Edden as Fagin lines up his gang of little hooligans.

Pictures: Mark Douet.

Oliver!

Sheffield Crucible

*****

YOU need never go with trepidation to see Oliver!. Lionel Bart was no trained musician, but his instincts yield a bullseye at every turn: the Victorian subject, the compaction of Dickens’ plot, the many murky implications, the melodies all make this not just a hit, but a never-dating, still strikingly modern masterpiece.

And that’s what Daniel Evans’ new A* production for his Sheffield Crucible company is: a masterpiece, a model of how to direct, cast and present. The costumes, the manners, the seediness bespeak the 1850s, but he has built an eye-dazzling, heart-wrenching staging that is as original as the first spaceship and as fresh as a daisy. 

All those sensational numbers: not a dud among them. Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy roars off with the vocal honours, in terms of sheer power and verve and emotional pull; hers is the one performance to rival Fagin’s, no mean achievement. She gives Nancy such beef it’s a surprise she doesn’t break Bill’s jaw rather than being bumped off herself.

Thirteen-year-old Jack Armstrong’s Artful Dodger (fractionally older Travis Caddy doubles, doubtless with his own brand of teenage cheek) turns not just ‘Consider Yourself’, but his every appearance onstage into a kind of choreographed dance. Like Jack Wild, he’s a nutter, but one hell of a nice, stylish one. Speaks brilliantly too (Vocal & Dialect Coach: Richard Ryder).

The only surprise: that Dodge fouls up Oliver’s first venture into streetwiseness, and by getting him caught, effectively saves his life. Nothing about Armstrong is vague: every flicker is specific, curiously relevant. You just wish Dodger – in the script he fades - had more. This is a young lad who not only look like an actor but who is one. Brilliant casting; which in turn suggests inspired auditions.

Walking on the wild side: Jack Skilbeck-Dunn as Oliver and Jack Armstrong as The Artful Dodger

Bill Sikes’ rather immodest autobiography (Ben Richards) comes off well, even if I never shivered in my boots. Nancy’s friend, Bet, cheering the ensemble (‘It’s a fine life’, ‘I’d do anything…’) is another good bit of casting. Bumble (David Phipps-Davis: it’s a role to live up to, after Harry Secombe and Paul Whitsun-Jones) bumbles splendiferously and has a good line in ear-twisting; his peevish Widow (Rebecca Lock) wrings her hands and his nerves, and the scene where old Sally spills the beans, then hilariously snuffs it, tells us what we’ve known all along from Jack Skilbeck-Dunn’s accent: that he springs from the posh side of the blankets.

This is an exquisitely beautiful, duly wet Oliver, by his moves and demeanour: almost tediously polite, yet quite spunky when ‘Mr.’ Fagin and Dodge liven him up. I feel deep down that Dickens meant Oliver to be more than just a pretty little boy lost, and that 11-year-old Skilbeck-Dunn, clearly a canny lad, might deliver even more if set steeper challenges. There is a danger for any production (happily not so here) it may end up with an O-shaped hole at the centre. Benjamin Britten’s Miles could be wet, too, but palpably isn’t.

Mr. Brownlow (no fault of David Mara, a good ensemble performer) is undercharacterised by Bart, and Dickens too, who unlike Jane Austen did Magwitches and Sydney Cartons and Pickwicks better than he did goody-goodies: if Mr. B were more interesting, we’d be more reassured blue-suited Oliver is going to turn out more than a parody of middle-class manners and dignified tedium. Perhaps he’ll pitch up in the Law, and defend Dodgers; or send them down. Please, not a Banker. 

The Sowerberrys (and some hyperactive coffins) are deliciously ghastly, and go loopy with a pearl of a spoken scene before ‘That’s Your Funeral’ hits the jackpot (choreography, by Evans or dance coordinator Alastair David, with maybe some input from assistant director Poppy Rowley, was marvellously devised, incredibly precise in concept, assured in delivery and often side-splitting).

Again, either Evans or the colourful music team (Music Director Jonathan Gill) have got these boys (and girls, in a quite superb opening scene) singing their socks off. Oliver can be a bit of a shout, and of course some sequences should be. But this was collective musicality, and of a really high order. That’s from a music critic. Fabulously well done, the whole team.

Hayley Gallivan who is simply stupendous as Nancy

Conversely, I longed for more solo work from the young: even Oliver only get’s ‘Where is Love?’ - a bit too timid here.  Boy solos aren’t in the score, but it’s a lost opportunity, whether for stylised cacophony or melting beauty.

There was one, right at the start of the show (workhouse kids, dreaming of comestibles). Otherwise the nearest we get, really, is the three female and one male voice for the (here, gorgeously tender) vendors’ quartet (‘milk, strawberries, knives to grind – useful for Sikes, W. -  red roses, two blooms for a penny?’), inspiredly placed on the balcony above whence Sikes will take his fatal dive, as if their very purity pushes him over the limit.

Conversely, Oliver’s innocent cheeks never lose their bloom. And because of his very innocence, Skilbeck-Dunn, intelligent and talented lad that he is, is the bloom on this show (I’d like also to have seen - to compare - his 12-year-old double, Samual [sic] Bailey, whose demeanour and characterisation, less pretty-pretty, may have been different) – each matched by their spiritual other half, Gallivan’s knockout Nancy with the big heart.

One joy is that the miking is restrained. Musical as a genre just loves to let the speakers take over, batter the music to death in fact, and often they’re placed in some ludicrous spot high up or miles away from the singers, so the latter become just squawking or mouthing dummies. Simon Baker, whose field is classical theatre, avoids all that: everything is beautifully calibrated to let the voice – the original sound - come through, just eased up ever so little to make it to the recesses of the whole wide arena auditorium that is The Crucible.

Look, if you can hear a gentle nudge on a snooker ball at the back of the Crucible, you can certainly hear a human voice. Baker gets it right, or so I feel, every single time. Gallivan doesn’t need any miking at all: she could be heard from Bow Bells to Old Bailey. The original orchestrations (not by Bart, of course, though he probably suggested ideas) were by Stephen Metcalf: William David Brohn has done fine work adapting it for this production, and Gill’s players, from breezy euphonium to extraordinary whispers of woodwind (clarinets latterly), make sounds, glorious sounds. The four strings could have been allowed to peep through more: they do twice, and it’s sensational. Add in a mandolin and it’s magic.

The costumes are utterly fabulous, without a single exception. Fagin’s treasure trove (designs Peter McKintosh) is a kind of East End gipsy palace, full of interesting crannies, intriguingly half-lit by Howard Harrison, where naughty waifs can curl up and all but disappear. The boys’ bedtime scene, once Tom Edden’s mesmerising Fagin has geed them up to the point of exhaustion, is extraordinarily moving – but then so too is much else in this show.

Where it all starts: Food Glorious Food, the opening number   from Daniel Evans production

Edden, above all, is what makes this show not just five but ten star. He electrifies from his first entrance – is as hyperactive as the boys themselves: one of the most famous ‘abusers’ in literary history, isn’t he just an overgrown schoolboy himself who has never made it into the big world of grownups? ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ and ‘I’m Reviewing the Situation’ are each a masterclass in delivery, the first turning camp innuendo to other ends (thieving, but shh! – don’t mention the word), the second a kind of Freudian self-analysis, sustained to his final escape. No surprise Edden comes armed with his Tony Award nomination and National Theatre credentials for Hytner’s One Man, Two Guvnors.

Anyway, till the final moment where he is caught in a spotlight shuffling away to – to what? – Edden is the energiser, whizzing around like a dragonfly unable to settle; a seedy Father Borelli, who fills in where Social Services fail but imposes rather disreputable pursuits upon his wacky little charges.

I guess one day someone will create a Fagin with a normal nose, no wide-brimmed hat and not a sidewhisker. For the moment, Edden has all the regalia, indeed the traditional, honest nature of Evans’ production is what makes it so successful. It’s gimmick-free; the sheer verve of the choreography, and flair of the scrupulously rehearsed singing (boys and adults equal marks) carry it through.

So all honour to Sheffield’s Oliver: Uplifting, bewitching, exemplary, touching, dazzling. Consider Yourself ….one of the greats. To 25-01-14.

Roderic Dunnett

Oliver – listings:  Venue: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, Music: Lionel Bart, Production licensed by Cameron Mackintosh and the Southbrook Group, Musical Director: Jonathan Gill, Orchestral Arrangements: William David Brohn, Original Orchestrations adapted by: Stephen Metcalf, Director: Daniel Evans, Assistant Director: Poppy Rowley, Choreographer: Alistair David, Assistant Choreographer: Victoria Hinde, Designer: Peter McKintosh, Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison, Vocal & Dialect Coach: Richard Ryder

Musicians: Mike Ladley: Flute/Piccolo/Descant Recorder, Carl Raven: Clarinets, Nadia Wilson: Clarinets and Alto Recorder, Chris Beagles: French Horn, Peter Mainwaring, Ben Hoblyn: Trumpet & Flugel Horn, Simon Walker: Trombone and Euphonium, Huw Evans, Andrew Griffiths,: Keyboards, Rhianon Harding, Nick James: Percussion, Huliet Leighton-Jones: Violin and Mandolin, Matt Glossop: Viola, Ben Stevens: Cello, Steve Cooper: Bass

 

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