Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Cheshire's magic is evident from the opening scene

Oliver

Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August-11-19
Oliver by Aberystwyth Arts Centre I'll let you into a little secret - Lionel Bart's Oliver! is my favourite musical. I've watched the film dozens of times, I've seen various productions of the stage adaptation and in a former life, I even performed in it, right here in Aberystwyth. It therefore takes something extra special to impress me when it comes to this Dickens classic but I'll say at the outset - this is the best summer season production Aberystwyth has seen for many, many years.

Rather than hire in a touring company, this year the Arts Centre took the brave decision to produce the show themselves. Given the Theatre Y Werin stage has, over the last few years, hosted 'big guns' such as Sister Act, Hairspray, Flashdance and Legally Blonde, the choice of musical was always going to be important but moreover, the choice of director was absolutely crucial. In this part of the world there is only one person who could fill these massive shoes - the legendary Richard Cheshire. His appointment was a masterstroke by the Arts Centre and Cheshire's magic is evident from the opening scene in the Welsh-based workhouse to the dramatic finale, a couple of hours later.

The first ten minutes of the performance are filled entirely by local children who perform the traditional "Food Glorious Food" with aplomb, which then builds into the most famous lines in the whole show - "Please Sir. I want some more." Placing so much confidence and responsibility in the kids so early in the show was inevitably a gamble, but it pays off and they get a rousing reception at the end of the scene - as good an opening as I've seen in any type of theatre for a long while.

The aforementioned famous words are uttered by local lad Charlie Longman, who plays the title role. After the show I learned he was just ten years of age. Taking this fact alone into account, his performance is nothing short of sensational and I predict a massively bright future for this young man. However, mentioning his tender age is not to take anything away from the quality of his performance. Believable, vulnerable, professional, humble, self-aware and respectful of his fellow performers, this guy has got it all and I hope that this is the first of hundreds of his performances that I have the pleasure of watching over what I predict, will be a long and successful career.

The inevitable retort to Oliver's request is boomed back at him by Mr Bumble who is played by Welsh TV favourite, Ieuan Rhys. This is Rhys' third summer season in Aberystwyth and, in my opinion, his best. His partner in crime, Widow Corney, is played by the inimitable and effervescent Gillian Elisa and the combination is a complete tonic. Oliver is not traditionally a production that you think of as including 'laugh out loud funny' scenes, but "I Shall Scream" falls into this category and the inventive decision to base the workhouse in Wales, is fully justified by these two powerhouses alone.

There are no weak links in this relatively small cast but the story-line is so well-known, that it's even more important that the smaller roles are executed to perfection. This is illustrated perfectly by the accomplished performances of Matthew Wellman (Mr Sowerbery), John Lyons (Mr Brownlow) and particularly Amy-Jane Ollies (Mrs Sowerberry), who reminds me of a young Rachel West who many people in Aberystwyth will remember performing in the 1989 production of Oliver, on the very same stage.

This year sees the return to Theatre y Werin of Sam Ebenezer and Bethan Pearce, who are former stars of the Wardens pantomime but who are now plying their trade professionally in non-Dickensian London. Sam plays Noah Claypole and Bethan plays Charlotte and their main scene in the funeral parlour, is a lovely snapshot of the production line of quality performers that this little town has consistently produced over many years. Speaking of which, the Arts Centre this year gives full professional debuts to two of the current crop, Jordan Jones and Maeve Courtier-Lilley, who have played the leads in the last two pantomimes and who look completely at ease in the professional arena.

After Oliver escapes the clutches of Mr Bumble he finds himself in London where he is taken under the wing of the Artful Dodger, played by Anirudh Krishna. I've seen Anirudh perform a couple of times previously and despite being only fourteen, he has been on the Aberystwyth "one to watch" list for many years. His stagecraft is already effortless and he looks like he's enjoying every single second and so despite the fact we know he's about to get poor little Oliver into a whole heap of trouble, you can't help but root for him and the rest of Fagin's gang from the outset. Speaking of which, the 'gang' are all excellent and although perhaps slightly unfair to single any of them out, there was an extra twinkle in the eyes of Miriam Llwyd Davies, Heledd Davies, Owen Jac Roberts and especially Iwan Finnigan, who plays the underrated role of Charley Bates.

The leader of this motley crew is of course Fagin, played by Matthew Ashforde. The fact he is slightly younger than the Fagins that have gone before him makes absolutely no difference and his performance is a crescendo of brilliance, with Reviewing the Situation getting one of the biggest cheers of the night and Oliver catching him trying on the sparkling jewelry from his precious loot box adds a new dimension to this iconic scene.

Nancy is played by Anna McGarahan and she steals the show with her rendition of As Long as He Needs Me. The antithesis to her loveliness is, of course, Bill Sikes, played by Richard Corgan who has a diamond encrusted CV and whose performance is typically polished. Their relationship is a huge part of the story and their inevitable demises are suitably horrifying but if I was being hyper-critical, I think he could even take it up a notch on the terrifying front - we're made of stern stuff in Aberystwyth Richard - we can take it!

The soundtrack to our evening is an all-star band and whilst I'm sure I've previously said that a good band is like a football referee in that they're doing their job when you don't really notice them. I'm completely taking that statement back as on this occasion, the band were very noticeable in an entirely positive way - namely that they were beyond brilliant. Looking at the line-up in the programme I shouldn't have been surprised as it includes the likes of Aberystwythian Tom Sansbury who, over the last few years, has performed with literally some of the biggest names in the music business but the shining lights for me were Rhodri Taylor on clarinet and Eiriol Leach on bassoon, which really lends itself to the score, especially the darker scenes towards the end of the show.

The finale is greeted by a standing ovation by the capacity audience and rightly so. From the casting to the lighting to the sound to the balance between comedy and darkness, the whole show is a complete tour de force and the Arts Centre should be commended for taking on the project themselves - a decision that will hopefully be rewarded by full houses galore throughout the rest of the run. But nobody should be in any doubt about the most important decision of all - the one to bring Richard Cheshire 'home' for the summer. He is one of the most sought after directors in the world of pantomime, but has the Midas touch in all genres of theatre and I genuinely hope he is rewarded by a repeat appointment next year as the Arts Centre/Cheshire combination is clearly a winner. This was no better illustrated during the company's performance of Who Will Buy - a more specially staged and produced five minutes of theatre you will not see for a very long time.

Many congratulations to all involved - to achieve near perfection on the opening night is as rare as it is fabulous but knowing some of the people behind this production, it will get even better as the weeks go by and I, for one, will be back to watch it again.

Reviewed by: Alan Rock

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