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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane


One might be forgiven for thinking that Lionel Bart's beloved Oliver! had long ago revealed the full array of whatever riches it possesses, given that this musical tends to be routinely revived so as to give new generations of moppets a heads up at hogging center stage. But not the least of the considerable achievements of Rupert Goold's latest go-round with this perennial favorite is that it utterly forestalls all cynicism, offering up a walloping star performance - make that two - in the process. In effect a revival of a revival, the staging at Drury Lane is patterned after the Sam Mendes production that kept the Palladium filled for a sizable chunk of the 1990s. But whereas that production took several Fagins to acquire anything resembling a personality - and suffered, too, from a desire to excavate the so-called "reality" in a show that is in fact equal measure pantomime and knees-up - Goold and co-director and choreographer Matthew Bourne simply treat the thing as a romp, sinisterly shaded around the edges. The result is a big, blowsy, rambunctious entertainment that actually honors the exclamation point in the show's title: those seduced by the copious advance hype are unlikely to feel shortchanged.

They certainly won't by the opening sight during Food Glorious Food of what seems like a veritable cornucopia of kids, all chowing down in raucous unison until Harry Stott's cherub-faced Oliver dares - in one of the most celebrated of all musical theater questions - to ask for more. What ensues is a sojourn through some of the posher climes and sleazier chambers of Dickensian London in an entertainment that aims not for verismo but for the sort of knockabout, thrill-a-minute escapism that you feel Oliver and his chums would themselves enjoy.

The calling cards here are multiple, and they begin with the return to the West End after more than 20 years of that dark-eyed comic satyr, Rowan Atkinson: Mr. Bean here lending traces of his trademark bendiness to a villain who can be played with varying degrees of chicanery but who on this occasion acquires a touch of sympathy without Atkinson once having to sentimentalize the role. Singing in a raspy tone that suits Fagin's status as a down-and-out, Atkinson has shifty, sneaky fun with the character, rarely softpedalling the greed and avarice of a man fuelled by fantasies of luxury but at the same time never taking too seriously the trajectory of a show that doesn't claim to be a direct page-to-stage transcription of the Dickens novel- to criticize Oliver! for not being faithful enough to its source novel is to miss the point of the exercize.

The other "star name" comes via reality TV, with all the attendant and quite reasonable grousing about the spurious path to stage renown traveled by the Lee Meads and Connie Fishers of this world - well though they have done in their various London gigs. (We'll pass politely over the sorry pairing that popped up last summer in Grease.) In fact, Jodie Prenger seems cut from much the same cloth as Sam Mendes's first Nancy, onetime RSC actress Sally Dexter, but younger and more vulnerable and with a comparably buxom brio that proves hard to resist. Sure, it's hard to stomach the about-face of a battered character whose affections for the brutish Bill Sikes (Burn Gorman, oddly pallid in the role) make Billy Bigelow's treatment of Julie Jordan in Carousel look relatively benign. But Prenger comes at the role like an irrepressible innkeeper who wants all her revellers to have a good time, and the enthusiasm with which the press night audience ate up her performance seemed


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