It has been a pretty special year for Sheffield Theatres. The Full Monty reprised back in its Steel City backyard was a joyous critical and popular hit touring the country to rapturous receptions. The unlikely This is My Family, a musical about a doomed inter-generational camping trip, also went on to win a UK Theatre Award.
It came as little surprise when artistic director Daniel Evans’s was a name very much in the frame for the top job at the National Theatre – surely an honour that must still await him at some point.
This year’s Christmas show directed by Evans, had a tough act to follow. Last year’s My Fair Lady, in which Dominic West was teamed alongside the stellar emerging talent of Carly Bawden set the bar at a dizzying height. Yet Oliver! – the first revival of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s 1994 production at the London Palladium - pretty much makes the leap.
Once again the show was visually gorgeous, beautifully choreographed and lavishly orchestrated with Lionel Bart’s non-stop jukebox of show-stopping hits lovingly restored to life.
A series of stupendous performances cemented the success. Tom Edden as Fagin was simply outstanding as the horrible old corrupter of youth whose self-serving survival instincts and magpie acquisitiveness overwhelm any natural redeeming instincts he may have had lurking within.
Hayley Gallivan was equally splendid as poor misguided Nancy alongside the smouldering malevolence of Ben Richards’ stuff-of-nightmares Bill Sikes. Her murder scene erred just on the right side of family friendly.
David Phipps-Davis (Mr Bumble) has a fine operatic baritone whilst that night’s Oliver, Jack Skilbeck-Dunn, produced a heart-rending and suitably angelic tourist voyaging through the seamy and violent underside of Victorian society.
Oliver! was to prove the pinnacle of Bart’s success, a financial goldmine which funded his outrageous lifestyle and fuelled his alcoholic tendencies until that is, having signed away the rights to the show, the money ran out and he ended up living alone, broke and sick in a flat in Acton.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh helped the songwriter in later life returning him a share of the rights and recruiting him on the Palladium production - although Bart was never to fully recover from the ravages of his vodka years, dying in 1999.
In the 1960s, when Oliver! was enjoying its extraordinary West End and Broadway runs – not to mention the multi-Oscar winning 1968 film – the satire generation rather looked down on Bart, the son of a Jewish tailor and his honest-to-goodness, plinkety-plonk portrayal of the human condition.
As this production shows there is nothing complicated musically about Oliver! nor the straightforward morality tale he adapted at its core. There is however a very acute feeling of the precariousness of life and the sense that there but for the grace of God go I when it comes to the way things turn out. It is this sheer humanity of the piece which shines through and makes it a touching classic that will never fade. This is another richly deserved hit for Sheffield and one that bodes well for 2014.
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