First Night: Oliver! Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London

3.00

Mr Bean is great but do we really need the people's choice?

Well, is it a great musical? Yes. Is Rowan Atkinson any good as Fagin? Fairly good, fairly funny, but he can't sing very well, and keeps missing the beat. And what about Jodie Prenger, the people's choice as Nancy on the highly enjoyable BBC television talent show I'd Do Anything hosted by Graham Norton and supervised by Andrew Lloyd Webber? Oh dear.

You have to say on the last count that a producer as experienced as Cameron Mackintosh must be barmy having any truck with such a process. How desperate are people now to sell their shows? And a director with the rising reputation of Rupert Goold, here re-staging Sam Mendes's 1994 Palladium revival with the same sets by Anthony Ward and the same choreography (sort of) by Matthew Bourne, is just joining the merry-go-round, going on the game.

Why? Search me, squire. I'm reviewing the show, not the situation. When Atkinson gets round to that number, he's in his element. Long-haired and slithery like a Semitic toad, he weighs his options with a Mr Bean-style blubberiness, tugging at his lower lip and casting malignant glances to the wings. He's funniest when fingering his stolen gems, or kicking his legs above his head in a sideways exit. But he's not a malevolent, gleeful, stage-hogging, dubiously paedophiliac monster that you long for and Lionel Bart wrote, even if Charles Dickens didn't.

The moment Prenger appears, I'm afraid, the heart sinks. She seems to be hiding from the audience. Her voice is okay, but she can't act and she doesn't have the depth of lung power to fill a plastic bag, let alone a West End theatre on a nightly basis. Did nobody know this when she appeared week after week in that TV show? If not, what do they know? "As Long As He Needs Me," one of the great theatre songs of our time, is a total embarrassment compounded by a naff downstage centre rush for applause.

Ward's designs look better than they did in the Palladium, which has a much wider stage. But the production confusingly begins with a magnified workhouse effect of about one hundred (I lost count at ninety) kids lining up with their dreams of food, glorious food. Where do all those kids go for the rest of the evening? A few crop up in Fagin's thieves' kitchen, a colourful den awash with orange and red stolen 'kerchiefs.

Oliver's journey from the Midlands workhouse (where the stage is hung with a "God is Love" inscription and Julius D'Silva's otherwise excellent Mr Bumble and Wendy Ferguson's salacious Widow Corney – their foreplay number is a highlight – speak lazily in all-purpose Yorkshire accents) takes him fleetingly through a silhouetted countryside to a London cityscape that opens like a pop-up picture book.

There is St Paul's, Fleet Street, a barber's red and white pole. En route, Oliver's employment as a coffin follower at the Sowerberry funeral parlour is enlivened by Julian Beach's spindly undertaker and his blowzy wife, raucously sung by Louise Gold. What is the Oliver boy like? Another tricky question. Last night's Oliver, Harry Stott – he shares the role with two others – was sweet enough, weak in the upper soprano register, just about okay. Nothing special.

I'm guessing from the programme pix – why not an announcement? – that the Artful Dodger was played by Ross McCormack, and he was terrific. The absolute centre of the show is "Consider Yourself" in Clerkenwell, as the Dodger's gang materialise from inside a statue of a top-hatted worthy and the whole city erupts in a series of knees-ups and key changes, beautifully lit by Paule Constable.

The second half is given a sort of solidity by Julian Glover's Mr Brownlow, the man whose pocket is picked but who saves our young hero with the happy accident of genetic recognition. In Dickens, Fagin is executed, but this is a musical and we love our villains, so Atkinson hobbles away in a sunset silhouette. Burn Gorman's colourful Bill Sikes is not so lucky, falling off the rooftops in the chase after he's done the dastardly deed and his Staffordshire terrier races across the stage off the leash. A masterpiece is restored, but not in its fullest glory.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn