Oliver! has a long and rich history since its West End debut in 1960. It had success on Broadway, many touring productions and, of course, the famous, Oscar-winning 1968 film. So, it holds a place as one of the most popular musicals of the last century. The latest production to come to Blackpool is produced by Ensemble Theatre Company, a new player on the scene who bill themselves as a “supportive platform for the Musical Theatre community.”
As a show, Oliver! started off strong. There was a lot of charm and refreshingly unabashed musical theatre energy, with several standout performances among the ensemble cast. The costuming and choreography of the famed opening Food, Glorious Food conveyed a sense of grasping desperation, along with an awe for the culinary delights that pass in front of the eyes of the orphans. Overall in fact, the group choreography was one of the show’s highlights, with Consider Yourself having some lovely chorus line-esque formations, dancing that seemed both appropriate to the character of the show as well as suitably crowd-pleasing, plus a couple of big stunts. Similarly, Oom-Pah-Pah and It’s a Fine Life brought a feeling of underclass drunken loutishness, fun and rebellion with a hint of danger, very well.
I also enjoyed that the show embraced a style of heightened realism, which seemed not only very Dickensian but led to some very funny moments. The Sowerberys, a Victorian undertaker and his wife, had a sort of performative, exaggerated grimness that tied into that era’s obsession with mourning as a public performance, while their styling reminded me of something out of a Tim Burton film. Kudos must go to the costuming department for the distinctive and wonderfully ridiculous look of these two characters. Plus both performers committed to their maudlin dynamic, bouncing off each other well and making their number It’s Your Funeral an unexpected highlight.
This heightened realism also enhanced the scenes featuring Fagin, especially Reviewing the Situation, where he played with the audience (as any good family show rogue should) and pretended to hear off-stage violins to comedic effect. This version of Fagin was a younger, slicker and more charismatic figure than one might be used to, exuding a touch of the dandy and a sly, fox-like cunning. He was another highlight performance-wise, gracefully exuding himself across stage and commanding attention.
One small thing I would critique is that the actors playing Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney kept reappearing in crowd numbers, sometimes clearly still in character and other times not. Since the producers went to the effort of keeping the Sowerberys offstage after their number and added costume changes for Bill Sikes and even the members of the ensemble while portraying the more upper-crust characters of Who Will Buy, this seemed an odd decision and made Bumble and Corney’s narrative pursuit of the title character muddied and less satisfying.
Nancy was also a big highlight from the cast, balancing the bawdy and rebellious spirit of a street-walking wench, with tender care for Oliver and the vulnerability of the abused girlfriend of suitably terrifying villain Bill Sikes. Sikes, it should be noted, came across as a stalking menace always on the verge of violence, a man whose intimidation comes not from physical size but from a reputation for bloody retribution.
The portrayal of Nancy was further enhanced by the excellent lighting during As Long as He Needs Me, one of the best numbers in the show and quite the powerhouse performance. Starting off with Nancy consoling her constant companion, reassuring her that she is fine, before moving to a solitary moment under a single spotlight, showing her convincing both convincing her friend and desperately trying to convince herself, making her eventual death even more of a gut punch.
Overall, the show is a treat for families, with some lovely ensemble work, choreography and some new and interesting takes on some favourite classic characters.
Oliver! runs at Blackpool Grand Theatre until Saturday 15 September. For more information or to book tickets visit blackpoolgrand.co.uk or call 01253 290190.
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