THERE are few times when anyone can say they have seen two definitive productions of famous musicals within 19 days, but I am fortunate enough to have done so, and both of them thanks to people who live in Somerset. The first was the recent ground-breaking and site-specific Sweeney Todd, set in a rebuilt pie shop on Shaftesbury Avenue, seating just 69 people at benches and tables, facilitated by Cameron Mackintosh, and the second was at Street this evening.
I have seen Oliver five or six times, including two professional versions, and love the music, book, and the romantic story of Lionel Bart and how he came to write it, but I have never been more terrified by Bill Sykes, so sorry for Nancy, so captivated by Fagin and so concerned for Oliver as I was this evening.
This company, which has a long history, dating back 85 years, with almost 100 listed previous shows, have somehow managed to distill their shared experience and expertise to produce a show in which the songs were just one part of the very real and completely believable story, in a way which would make Dickens himself proud. From the moment the chorus of workhouse boys sprang into tightly choreographed action with crystal clear singing and absolute confidence, to the sad, quiet end, with Fagin leaving the corpses of Bill and Nancy on the stage, I was completely involved.
Oliver himself, played with a wonderful naivety and completely natural singing voice, with no vibrato at all and yet totally accurate on pitch and enunciation, by Shay Bobbett, drew us in from his very first line, and kept us enthralled throughout. Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney, too often played for comedy in other productions, were equally believable, as were every single one of the characters, through the comical, yet mildly threatening Sowerberrys, and Noah, to the upright Mr Brownlow and Mrs Bedwin, all completely rounded characters with motivation, lovely voices, and slick interaction.
As Nancy, Jess Stradling was a true girl about town with a conscience, and she acted her way through her ballads with a subtle truth while belting out her bigger numbers.
Matthew Maisey, as Fagin, had such a difficult task, following in such esteemed footsteps as his character does, but he made the role his own, bringing a gentleness and delicacy often missed by bigger “stars” or names from showbusiness. His lyrical baritone voice was beautifully used in Reviewing the Situation, the verses of which became a duet with the solo violin of Christine Bull, adding a whole new perspective to a song I know so well.
The same applied to so many of the musical numbers, from That’s Your Funeral and a wonderful rendition of Who Will Buy, with four street vendors who could each have been playing a principal role, to the menacing My Name, which set Bill Sykes, played with a horrible reality by Edgar Phillips, up as a proper villain, out to get what he wanted, at any cost.
Space is relatively limited, or I would speak positively about every member of the cast, orchestra, stage crew, and whole company, and it almost seems petty to find one tiny piece of negative feedback, but I do wish the girls undergarments had not been quite so white – perhaps they had all been laundered by Fagin? Everything else was as slick and tight as any West End production, from the controlled use of “atmos” – wisps of smoke which help make lighting more effective, to the efficient sound balancing, seamless scene-changing of a fantastic set, and some amazing work within the band, including some lovely bass clarinet as well as the aforementioned violin.
It is almost a shame that on my way out of the theatre I was asked by one of the ushers who it was that I knew in the cast, because of the enthusiasm of my cheering and applause, and I was able to reassure her that I know none of them, and that my reaction was just that, my reaction to a truly wonderful performance.
There are moments in life when you feel sorry for people you know, and even those you do not, who will miss a great experience; a unique sporting achievement, a one-off performance by a world-class musician or singer, or a definitive production of a theatrical work. This production, along with the “pie shop” Sweeney of Easter Saturday, is one of those moments.
I feel sorry for anyone who does not see it, and privileged that I did.