First time I’ve ever been to a Sunday matinee… and The Palace Theatre on Manchester’s Oxford Road is a suitably impressive place to start. This is the venue for the current leg of the Oliver! UK Tour, and there seems to be a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the packed foyer pre-show. It’s easy to understand why – this show is a an absolute classic, much loved by young and old, and mostly anyone in between.
So how does the latest incarnation of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece stack up? Programme, brochure, pocket watch, key-ring and furry Bullseye secured, it was time to find out.
We open at the workhouse and the moody, percussive stomp onto stage of the multitude of children is dramatic and beautifully choreographed. “Food, glorious food” is my personal favourite, and it translates brilliantly on a superb set that is immediately indicative as to the show’s production values. More of that later. In the meantime, this is a spectacular opening- the title song, leading into “Boy for sale”, voiced superbly by Jack Edwards’ rich baritone. Hardly time to catch your breath, before the appropriately skin-crawling Sowerberries. The young actor Harry Polden, playing the title part, delivers a first-rate “Where is Love?” and the audience are thoroughly hooked.
The show rattles along never lagging or slowing, and it ispunctuated perfectly by the flagship BIG numbers – “Consider yourself”, “Oom-pah-pah” and “Who will buy”. “Consider Yourself” in particular delivers an amazing spectacle, superbly choreographed by Matthew Bourne and led with verve and panache by the young Joe Potter, who could have been born to play the Artful Dodger, such is his magnetic stage presence. Director Laurence Connor has flooded the stage with colour and created a real visual feast for the eyes. Fagin’s lair reveals his “merry men” in all their glory, and a special mention must be made of young George Littell- standing in for the part of “Nipper” at a moment’s notice and delivering a seamless and assured performance. The children are a real highlight, their energy never dips and they engage the eye throughout.
The first act finishes with a trio of classics – “Pick a pocket”, “I’d do anything” and “Be back soon”- and the star quality of Neil Morrissey and Samantha Barks is revealed in all its glory. Morrissey plays a suitably bedraggled Fagin, mixing comedy, song, dance and a darker edge perfectly, securing the iconic character as his own. As for Ms Barks, her vocal performance is simply stunning- no surprise there, you may say- but this girl really is truly brilliant. At the age of 21 she is the complete performing package, huge shoes to fill when the silver screen, in the form of “Les Miserables”, comes calling. Mention should also be made of Iain Fletcher, who plays a dark, menacing Bill Sykes with great presence.
The leads are supported by a vibrant and engaging ensemble who work extremely hard in bringing the flagship moments to life. There isn’t a weak link in this show, and as it builds to a resounding crescendo, Act 2 keeps on delivering where Act 1 left off – “Who will buy” is the cleverest and most intricately staged song on show; “Reviewing the Situation” gives Morrissey full reign to his talents, as “As long as he needs me” does for Ms Barks. You can’t help but be carried along by the enthusiasm and talent of this amazing cast. The production values are nth degree, shown in the amazing sets, costumes and creative and musical arrangements. You can see exactly where your entrance fee has gone, and you don’t begrudge a penny of it.
Oliver! is a triumph – beg, borrow, or more suitably steal a ticket, and the sooner the better. Anyone and everyone will find something to love here. Quite simply I loved all of it- even the interval- when I bumped into MUFC legend Roy Keane in the stalls bar!
Reviewed by Lewis Polden (Twitter: @lewpol)
Sunday, 19th February, 2012