Based, of course, on the novel by Charles Dickens, the show was the first modern British musical to have transferred successfully to Broadway. Although well over 50 years old now, there can be little doubt that, as a stage show, it has stood the test of time, and with such wonderful characters as Fagin and the Artful Dodger, and a host of really great songs (Who Will Buy? is one of my all time favourites) it is a show that is almost guaranteed to be a hit wherever and whenever it is performed.
It was the strength of the characterisation that, for me, made the show at Castle Cary the undoubted hit that it was; something that was quite apparent from the very outset, with the entry of the workhouse children. Director Martyn Jessop had clearly worked hard with these young people to make sure that they came across as individuals, each with an important role to play. Their varying ages and, above all, their varying heights was used to great effect. The same was true of the adult chorus, each of whom contributed something that was quite distinctive to the many animated crowd scenes.
As the bosses of the workhouse, Robert Dodge as Mr. Bumble and Mary-Anne Johnson as Widow Corney were thoroughly nasty pieces of work, the coarse, lecherousness of the former and the affected coyness (and fine singing voice) of the latter, giving their performances real quality. The same was true of Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry, both of whom made the most of their cameo roles. Robin Dibben as the henpecked but eerily creepy undertaker and Ali Enticott as his utterly grotesque wife were superb.
In the role of Oliver himself, fresh faced Jacob Edwards sang beautifully, his clear voice and good diction ensuring that we heard every word of his songs, and as his sidekick the Artful Dodger, Elena Morgan was a natural if ever there was one. Hers was a performance packed full of energy – she gave her role absolutely everything she had got. Their duet, Consider Yourself, was one of the many high spots in the production.
It is the nature of this show that many of the principal parts need to be played by youngsters. However, in this production, both Nancy (Lucy Crane) and Bet (Jessica Chiplen) were younger players too. Both were delightful, Lucy Crane’s portrayal of the deeply troubled Nancy being remarkable for its maturity. Her lovely song As Long as He Needs Me was sung with tremendous poignancy and she richly deserved the small bouquet presented to her at the close of the finale.
The object of her misplaced affections, Bill Sykes, was played by Alex Reid, another strong performance. I especially liked his brooding body language – indeed there was an air of vicious malevolence about his whole stage presence. He seemed to cast a dark shadow whenever he was on stage.
This was CATS’ third production of Oliver! and for Luke Whitchurch, 2015 marked his second appearance. He was Noah Claypole in the 2003 production and this year he took on the significantly more demanding role of Fagin. This he did with real assurance. With his scarecrow appearance, angular body language, shuffling walk and obsequious, half-whispered speech, his was a performance to be reckoned with. His Reviewing the Situation in particular was utterly mesmerising.
If one or two moments in the show lacked some of the dramatic impact they might have had (I am thinking here of the capture of Oliver at the end of Act I and of the scene in Act II when he is reclaimed by Nancy and Sykes – both key moments in the plot), most of the musical numbers were exceedingly well staged, allowing plenty of scope for characterisation. There were many clever and imaginative touches too, such as the mechanical eating of the workhouse children and the three frozen tableaux in Bill Sykes’ My Name. Starting the second act “early”, so to speak, was also a clever idea and some of us, at least, enjoyed the opportunity of singing along with Nancy in Oom-Pah-Pah.
Clearly a lot of attention had been paid to the visual impact of the show. The costumes were very colourful and only very occasionally did the relatively small acting space seem in any way cluttered. The use of steps to provide different acting levels was helpful and although some of the many scene changes seemed a bit protracted at times, at least the director avoided the highly distracting practice of starting a scene change before the preceding scene has finished, while the small band, under the direction of Mark Tromans, which covered the changes was always a pleasure to listen to. There was certainly a bit too much smoke around and perhaps it was a faulty dimmer that made the various sunrises and sunsets a little abrupt, but on the whole the stage picture was highly effective.
Congratulations CATS – a great show.
Oliver! is at the Ansford Academy until Saturday 21st February. Curtain up at 7.30 p.m., although, with unreserved seating, you’d be well advised to get there sooner rather than later.