Review: Oliver! at York Theatre Royal

Oliver! is a classic: the music is stunning, Dickens’s story is loved and respected and the opportunities for character acting and drama is there in abundance.

By Angie Millard

Photos by Tom Arber

Full marks to York Light Opera Company for it’s choice and full marks for an energetic, life enhancing production.

The director cast two actors to play Oliver and the Artful Dodger and opening night saw Alex Edmondson as Oliver and Jack Hambleton as Dodger. There are plenty of opportunities for cuteness and audience-pleasing moments but the director and choregrapher, Martyn Knight, set a brisk pace with just enough theatrical moments to satisfy the audience. The boys played their parts with contrast to their respective characters; the knowing Dodger teaching the innocent Oliver with a real pride in his skills but not too much bravura. Oliver’s solo Where Oh Where is Love? is still one of the most moving of numbers and definitely hit the spot.

Fagin is an iconic role much imitated since the original show and film but Rory Mulvihill manages to sidestep some of the more obvious stage business and creates a satisfyingly real, comic persona. Fagin is an East End villain, greedy and self-serving but he does give his gang of street urchins shelter and food, in return for the profits from their thieving. His rendition of You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two is almost convincing in its sincerity.

Later in the show, in Reviewing the Situation, Mulvihill showed his conniving pragmatism and gave us another aspect of Fagin’s character but he played what we came to see and did it with ease.

The comic character of Mr Bumble is played by Neil Wood and his relationship with Widow Corney (Pascha Turnbull) classically unfolds as she becomes a screaming harridan.

Nancy played by Emma-Louise Dickinson has a tough veneer which breaks your heart as we see the toxic relationship with Bill Sykes unfold. Her version of As Long as He Needs Me unashamedly represents the torch song of torch songs and the audience adored it.

Bill Sykes is again a difficult character to play without too many sinister and unsubtle overtones. Jonny Holbecks portrays the insensitive brutishness of the man without compromise. He is a product of his environment and offers no apologies.

The director manages to highlight contrast in the upper-class scenes and show the squalor of life on the streets but never forgets that the audience need entertainment and joy. As choreographer, he has achieved miracles in the tight, skilfully danced routines. I particularly enjoyed the riotous Oom-Pah-Pah and chorus numbers in Fagin’s den.

The set is impressively created by using stairways and movable gantries which can be swung into place and accommodate small areas for indoor scenes. The costumes give colour and texture to the piece, balancing reality with the musical comedy sheen we all love.

Highlights of the show for me were the opening of Who Will Buy sung solo by the vendors on the street, as Oliver watches enraptured from the safety of his room at Mr Brownlow’s house. The voices were outstanding and so poignant.

I also loved Jack Hambleton’s performance as Dodger. He has that theatrical quality which makes him special and he oozes cool personality.

I cannot recommend the production more highly than to say: go and see this show and you will forget the bitter weather, York floods and, dare I say it, Brexit politics for a couple of hours.

Oliver! is running at York Theatre Royal from until 22 February 2020.