Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Oliver!

Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer season , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August-11-05
This review first appeared in a shorter version in the Western Maiil....

Are you looking for an evening’s worth of inspired musical theatre that will appeal to all ages? Then search no further than the Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s current summer season production of Lionel Bart’s ever-popular “Oliver!”

This musical version of Dicken’s much loved yarn about an orphaned boy’s hazardous struggle to find a home is given a refreshingly new lease of life in Richard Cheshire’s beautifully crafted and atmospheric production.

Imaginative multi-levelled set design (Scenic Projects) and evocative lighting combine to suggest the shadowy, seedy and sinister reality that lurks beneath the all too flimsy façade of respectability of nineteenth century London.

By way of an ingenious set, we are ushered into a series of distinct urban interiors that provide us with a powerful sense of the hidden depths – both physical and moral – of the city. From the unrelenting austerity of Bumble’s supposedly godly workhouse or the artificial camaraderie of Fagin’s dingy subterranean thieves’ den we are rudely awakened to that fact that we have entered into a perilous urban maze in which all is not what it may at first seem. Supposed good will is exposed as cruel exploitation and idealistic pretence proves to be little more than evil manipulation in this dangerous city, where little boys, such as Oliver (played here by the suitably angelic and sweet voiced Emyr Evans) are mere tools in the service of avaricious, brutal and corrupt men and women.

Central to this production’s narrative clarity and elegance is not only the superb musical accompaniment to Bart’s familiar vocal melodies, but also the carefully modulated orchestral delivery throughout, which creates just the right pace and tempo, at just the right times. The sonorous plucking of strings as brutal Bill Sykes enters, the furious clash of cymbals as Oliver frantically scraps with the mean spirited Noah Claypole and the ominously discordant strains that invade the tavern scene are all intrinsic to the overall effect of a production that consummately manages to combine aspects of melodrama, thriller, tragedy, farce and romance. Andrew Hilton’s musical direction is second to none, and the orchestral contribution to the overall effect of the production cannot be underestimated.

Exuberantly presented ensemble work in the Workhouse and Fagin’s Gang scenes provide a platform for the talented younger members of the cast, although the choreographic quality of this production really shone through in the beautifully delivered “Who Will Buy?” scene (Bravo, Anthony Williams).

Fine character work is plentiful throughout, and it is a measure of this production’s success that it carefully avoids lazy lapses into crude archetypal depictions of villains, strays and outsiders. Most notable was Peter Karrie’s sympathetically depicted Fagin - a villain made by the very society that marginalizes him, whose only solace resides in surveying the various stolen trinkets and baubles he secretly keeps and which he dreams will buy him the social acceptance he has always been denied. Similarly, Mr Bumble (Gary Davis) as a man blinded by his own sense of self importance, the deliciously scheming, gin-swilling Widow Corner (superbly played by Gay Soper) and the brooding menace of a suitably gravel-voiced Bill Sykes (Sion Lloyd) all reflect carefully honed and distinct characters with clear motivations and thus hidden depths. Nancy (in an outstanding and compelling all round performance by Helen French) is perfectly portrayed as a prematurely world-weary woman who falls for the wrong man – movingly conveyed in a belting rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me.” Such superb character work ensures that this production extricates a sense of the person behind the label and distinguishes the human being from the categorisation, and thus, quite literally brings what could be little more than an array of potential caricatures in a period piece, to beautifully textured life.

What more can I say? I guarantee that you will sing “It’s a Fine Life” all the way home. This is a must see!

Reviewed by: Alison Forsyth

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