I love writing reviews, especially for theatre as I absolutely love it! Here is a review I wrote for Oliver! at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre back in 2014.
The plush red velvet encloses me as I take my seat in the grand circle. The giggles of excited children and smiles of expectant adults echo through the archaic space, as ushers scramble to show the last few spectators to their seats. Then the moment we’ve all been waiting for…a hush falls upon the expectant crowd as the lights begin to dim and the curtain arises as our journey into ‘Oliver!’ begins.
The Victorian set sits magnificently in the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, as it itself was brought to life in 1894. The dim stairs and tables with dashings of orphans scattered around them instantly puts the mind back to the dark days that Dickens has immortalised in his novel ‘Oliver Twist’, which has now become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. ‘Food, Glorious Food’ is the first song of many to be bellowed out of the cast of the South Staffs Operatic Society much too the glee of the expectant audience, as the upbeat and humorous song is performed immaculately by the young cast, and so sets us all at ease as to what to expect from the entire performance.
Ben Burton makes his debut as Oliver in the famous scene where he gingerly asks for more gruel (which is surprising given that it looks like lumpy PVA glue). The young actor shines in his role as his runs circles around workhouse head Mr Bumble on stage, who makes the sea of audience member’s shriek with laughter in his attempts to catch him. The darkness that Dickens originally wanted to bring to light in the original novel is shown through the selling of this young orphan to a funeral director, and not just any funeral director – an extra creepy Victorian style funeral director. This unease is exasperated by the eerie duet sang by the funeral director and his wife, ‘That’s Your Funeral’. Mike Yardley and Sheila Wood make an excellent performance as this creepy pair, and I am only saddened when their scene is over and Oliver is sacked from their establishment, seeking slightly less depressing outcomes in London.
Here is where the fun begins. The Artful Dodger is a scruffy, pick pocketing cockney who no doubt in modern times would be the proud owner of an ASBO or three. Bouncing into the scene with ‘Consider Yourself’, this character immediately gains a bond with both Oliver and the audience. This number takes full advantage of the new London set, including old grey buildings and dirty market stalls, as it brings all that to life with the whole stage ensemble dancing and singing the colour onto the audience’s minds. This colour however soon drips away when Dodger takes Oliver to everyone’s favourite pick-pocketing crime boss, dear old Fagin.
The room the 19th century version of the lost boys are sitting in is draped in hankies, yes you heard right – hankies. These it comes to everyone’s attention is what the little criminals pinch most out of undiscerning, rich gentlemen’s back pockets. The tricks of this questionable trade are shown to Oliver in the number, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’. This colourful performance echoes the bright, bold colours of the gentlemen’s face cleansers (advertising genius right there), draped over washing lines covering the whole top half of the stage. This burst of colour is also exaggerated by the appearance of the female lead, Nancy played by Lucy Smith. Her raggedy hair and scarlet red dress only add to her bold and unforgiving stage presence, as she takes all eyes away from any other cast member. Despite being the wife of a violent, Victorian gangsta, Nancy shows that her spirits are high with the jolly numbers, ‘It’s a Fine Life’ and her duet with Oliver and Dodger, ‘I’d Do Anything’. We then slip into the interval with the aptly entitled ‘Be Back Soon’ performed by Fagin and his loyal gaggle of pick-pocketers.
You can almost hear the last few scoops of ice-cream being devoured and the polite chit-chat coming to a close as the curtain once again is hauled up and we await the fate of our now beloved characters. Oliver soon gets caught in a sticky position in his first pick pocketing attempt and is sent to court, which once again is extra creepy due to its status as Victorian. The audience however breathe a sigh of relief when the victim of this awful handkerchief related felony is merciful on poor Oliver, and instead of prison insists he comes and stays with him, as this would help him overcome his ways more than a (no doubt creepy Victorian) prison. This resolution however does not please the dark intimidating Husband of Nancy, Bill Sykes. Andy Thomas echoes this character marvellously with his husky, cockney voice and loyal supporting actor – Bullseye the English Bulldog. The audience can be in no doubt of Sykes’s status as all round mean civilian in his brilliantly performed number, ‘My Name’. Here he softly speak-sings how even the mention of his name is enough to get what he wants as each cast member exits the stage one by one, this is very effective and would no doubt make even the butchest audience member a little uneasy. Believing Oliver will blab the secrets of the underworld he has been exposed to, Sykes and a reluctant Fagin hatch a plan to stop him.
Nancy soon shows her sensitive side when she performs the minimally staged, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’. Lucy’s performance here glows as her single spotlight shines through the true innocence of Nancy which holds the audience’s heart. The pace of the production is soon put back into full swing as ‘Who Will Buy’ is performed showcasing Oliver’s new home with his loyal handkerchief victim. This buzz of dancing and harmonising is short lived however as Sykes kidnaps Oliver and returns him to Fagin’s handkerchief scattered lodgings. After Fagin’s cheeky solo of ‘Reviewing the Situation’ is complete, Nancy’s good heart shines through again as she puts a plan in place to sneak Oliver back to the better life he was guaranteed with the gentleman he had been taken in by, who it is now revealed (through a painting of his daughter who looks just like Oliver) is his long lost Grandfather – who knew? This plan in true Dickens fashion however is rumbled by Sykes and (spoiler alert) ends in the brutal beating to death of Nancy, which was thankfully taken out behind a large wall and so we only had screams to deal with rather than fake blood and all things gross – few. To the audiences delight however, Sykes is then shot dead by police and Oliver is after all returned to his Grandfather – do I still have your attention? ‘Be Back Soon’ is then performed by the whole cast who receive such a long chain of clapping that my hands begin to get sore, but I don’t seem to notice as I enjoyed the performance so much.
This musical really was a joy to watch and despite it sounding corny (better than creepy) really is a firm, family favourite. Ben Burton shone as Oliver and described his experience to me as ‘everything I dreamed it would be’. The whole cast came together and blended to create a beautiful picture of harsh, yet innocent Victorian life and keep audience members, young and old completely gripped throughout. If you get a chance to see this show or indeed any future productions put on by the South Staffs Operatic Society, I strongly recommend that you pick your own pocket or two, and get yourself to the theatre!