Oliver! Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Monday 19 January 2009
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 BBC television talent show I'd Do Anything? Oh dear.
On the last count, a producer as experienced as Cameron Mackintosh must be barmy having any truck with such a process. And a director with the rising reputation of Rupert Goold, here re-staging Sam Mendes's 1994 Palladium revival with the same sets and the same choreography (sort of) is just joining the merry-go-round.
When Atkinson gets round to that number, he's in his element. Long-haired and slithery like a toad, he weighs his options with a Mr Bean-style blubberiness, 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 the malevolent, gleeful, stage-hogging, dubiously paedophiliac monster that you long for.
The moment Prenger appears, the heart sinks. She seems to be hiding from the audience. She can't act and she simply doesn't have the lung power to fill a plastic bag, let alone a big West End theatre. "As Long As He Needs Me," one of the great theatre songs of our time, is a total embarrassment.
Anthony Ward's designs look better than they did in the Palladium, but the production confusingly begins with a magnified workhouse effect of about 100 kids lining up with their dreams of food, glorious food.
Oliver's journey from the Midlands workhouse (where Julius D'Silva's otherwise excellent Mr Bumble and Wendy Ferguson's salacious Widow Corney speak in lazy all-purpose Yorkshire accents) takes him to a London cityscape that opens like a pop-up picture book.
What is the boy like? Another tricky question. Last night's Oliver, Harry Stott (he shares the role with two others), was sweet enough, but nothing special. The Artful Dodger was played by Ross McCormack, and he was terrific. The centre of the show is "Consider Yourself" in Clerkenwell, as the gang materialises from inside a statue of a top-hatted worthy and the city erupts in a series of knees-ups.
The second half is given 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. Atkinson hobbles away in a sunset silhouette, while Burn Gorman's colourful Bill Sikes falls to his death. A masterpiece is restored, but not in its fullest glory.
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