Oliver! Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London
Roaring Trade, Soho Theatre, London
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, NT Olivier, London
Rowan Atkinson makes a convincing Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's revival of the enduring musical
Sunday 18 January 2009
Second helpings, anyone? It's not a line you associate with Oliver Twist. When Dickens's half-starved orphan boy asks for more, all he gets from the workhouse beadle, Mr Bumble, is a flea in his ear. But producer Cameron Mackintosh is not averse to the idea of the same again.
Though directed by Rupert Goold, who is renowned for taking award-winning new angles on classic plays, this Drury Lane Oliver! is essentially a revival of Sam Mendes's 1994 Palladium staging of the Lionel Bart musical. Goold was Mendes's assistant back then. So, is it just reheated leftovers? Not at all.
What's joyous is that this Oliver! feels fresh and exuberant – spiritually full of beans. The child actors are absolutely charming. Performing in rep with two other finalists from the sales-bolstering TV talent show I'd Do Anything, Harry Stott's Oliver has a gentle unaffected sweetness, with his mop of dark hair and serious face. He has the purity of a chorister when he sings "Who will buy this wonderful morning?"
Jodie Prenger's buxom Nancy (also from I'd Do Anything) proves splendid too, swinging into Fagin's den, swishing her petticoats. She exudes lovely natural confidence and touching warmth as she belts out "It's a fine life" and gives all the little rapscallions a hug. (She, by the by, is not playing all performances either, presumably to avoid strained vocal cords.)
As for Rowan Atkinson, it's a rare treat to see this comic actor in the flesh. His Fagin, with thinning ratty hair, is rich in hilarious idiosyncratic detailing, even if his nervous quivering is not convincing. His relish of the plosives in "Pick a pocket or two" is delicious – recalling his early school register sketch – and he playfully drags out the "r" in "Reviewing the situation" until he sounds like a buzzing bee, waggling his lips with a spindly finger. Endearingly cranky and childish when alone, he delves into his stash of jewels, slips on a tiara and improvises a puppet play between a lah-di-dah string of pearls and diamond choker.
The entire production soft-pedals on menace, grim poverty and child-abusing cruelty, with the exception of Julian Bleach's fantastically ghoulish Mr Sowerberry, a darting adder of an undertaker. Burn Gorman's Bill Sikes fails to chill and the narrative momentum becomes jerky in the second half.
Still, Goold, Mackintosh and choreographer Matthew Bourne don't leave their audience feeling short changed, with a whirling, rumbustious cast of 80 and expanded sets by Anthony Ward. Victorian London – in spite of folks being on their uppers – is quite spectacular. In the police chase where our child hero is on the run, accused of picking pockets, the city becomes a huge mobile maze. Whole towering streets slide around before your eyes, pincering in, merging and criss-crossing. Iron bridges – spanning the proscenium arch – slowly rise and fall as the little lad scurries to and fro. It's like a giant shooting gallery. A little bit scary, a lot a fun.
In Roaring Trade, capitalist greed is all consuming. Steve Thompson's new City drama, premiered by Paines Plough, throws you in with a bunch of arrogant, competitive and surreptitiously cheating bond traders, as the credit crunch looms. There are few surprises here for cynics, and Thompson owes debts to both Caryl Churchill's Serious Money and David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross.
Still, Roxana Silbert's production does generate tension, thanks to sharp acting from Andrew Scott as the viciously needling Donny and Nicholas Tennant as the burnt-out PJ, a veteran heading for a breakdown. Newcomers Christian Roe and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are names to watch.
From 21st-century capitalism, we trundle back to the USSR circa 1977. In Tom Stoppard and André Previn's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Joseph Millson's Alexander Ivanov is on hunger strike, incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for refusing to sing from the Soviet establishment's songsheet. Sharing his cell and surreally his name is a lunatic (Toby Jones) who believes he is in charge of an orchestra and keeps tinkling a triangle. In a schoolroom elsewhere, the dissident's distraught son – yet another Alexander Ivanov – muddles up the rules taught in his geometry class.
Worrying about where to draw the line between ideologies and an individual's identity, unbending belief systems and insanity, EGBDF is a teasing mix of serious issues and batty wordplay. However, as a crossover of theatre and music, it's a flop. The actors share the stage with a 40-strong orchestra only for Previn's score – interrupting the dialogue – to sound sentimental and prolix.
The National Theatre's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, is keen on experimental hybrids, but the results are hit and miss. This revival does Stoppard no favours. It is co-staged by Tom Morris and Punchdrunk's Felix Barrett, who is good at design-led projects but displays no textual acumen here. Though he can be a brilliant gnome-like clown, Jones is left flailing, and Millson's dignified speeches start to sound ploddingly worthy. As for the interpolated dance sequences, pirouettes and somersaults, as an arty depiction of torture only induce wincing embarrassment.
'Oliver!' (0844 412 2955) booking to 26 Sep; 'Roaring Trade' (0870 429 6883) to 7 Feb; 'EGBDF' (020-7452 3000) to 25 Feb
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