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

Mr Bean is great but do we really need the people's choice?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.