I saw Oliver! in March earlier this year at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I had a week off work at the time and I felt like treating myself so I decided to see a show. Then I thought about seeing Oliver! I'd heard that it was coming to Birmingham and I quite liked the idea of seeing a show in my hometown for once. So I went onto the Hippodrome website and found out that Samantha Barks was going to be playing the role of Nancy. I'd loved her Eponine in Les Miserables and thought it would be great to see her in something else. I'm also a Charles Dickens fan - although I haven't yet read Oliver Twist - so that was another factor that spurred me onto getting a ticket.
So what did I think? Well, I loved it! I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed it actually since I've never been a particularly huge fan of the film! I won't go into the story of the musical in too much detail, since it's so famous that practically everyone knows that it's about a young boy called Oliver who runs away to London to seek his fortune and falls in with a gang of pickpockets. Everyone knows who Oliver, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Nancy and Bill Sykes are.
Oliver! is a true classic and even though the musical is over 60 years old the music still sounds great and fresh. Almost all of the songs are memorable and brilliantly-written and could be written today. They're timeless. I thought the show was an excellent production too. The sets were fantastic and the production values were some of the highest that I've yet seen. It was obvious that Cameron Mackintosh had spent a lot of money on the show! It was a really big production, especially for a tour, and looked incredible.
The most famous actor in the show was undoubtedly Neil Morrissey because he's been in Men Behaving Badly, Bob the Builder and various other things on the TV. He played Fagin. Now perhaps it's not nice of me to start off with a criticism but... in one scene he did something that I really didn't like and found annoying. There was this one bit in the show where Morrissey's Fagin was holding a jewellery box and from it he took out a pearl and a crystal. He started messing around with them by saying "Crystal, meet Pearl. Pearl, meet Crystal." Then he mentioned that the Crystal was from a broken chandelier. Then Morrissey gave a slight pause and said, slowly and for emphasis, "Can We Fix It?" At this point the audience went into hysterics and everyone seemed to find it hilarious... but I wasn't laughing because I didn't find it funny. I don't really like it when actors do "Nudge nudge wink wink" moments like this. It's just too pantomime-ish and silly. It completely took me out of the show when Morrissey said that. Apart from that though I thought Morrissey was actually really good. He was funny and he worked well with the children.
The role of Bill Sykes was played by Iain Fletcher. He gave a really good performance as well even though he wasn't an especially strong singer. He pretty much sang-spoke his way through My Name. Yep, Bill Sykes actually sings in the stage version which was a bit of a surprise to me. But even though Fletcher didn't have the best voice in the world I really liked his acting. He brought menace to the part and was a really good villain. I'm sure he could terrify younger children! He had good chemistry with Samantha Barks as well, erm, despite the fact that Bill beats Nancy up.
The star of the show for me though was Samantha Barks. Nancy is the best and most well-developed character in the show and Samantha Barks did an absolutely brilliant job playing her. I won't usually go to see shows just because it features a certain performer. There have been times in the past when that's been the case like when I saw Much Ado About Nothing because David Tennant was playing Benedick - but usually I go because I want to see the show for itself. I did really want to see Samantha Barks though and I was praying that she wouldn't get sick. She wasn't sick and was absolutely sensational. Her acting was great, her cockney accent was really good, and she sounded just as comfortable singing the belty power ballad As Long As He Needs Me and the up-tempo songs like A Fine Life, I'd Do Anything and Oom Pah Pah. She really has come such a long way since being on the BBC's I'd Do Anything four years ago! Playing Eponine in Les Mis has really improved her voice and seems to have given her a lot more confidence. There is a version on YouTube of her performing As Long As He Needs Me from the I'd Do Anything final but that really doesn't do her justice because her version of that song in the show blew that version out of the water! Jodie Prenger probably deserved to win I'd Do Anything back then but if Samantha had been as good then as she is now, well, she would have won! I'm so glad that I got to see her perform in Oliver! before her commitments to the Les Mis film meant that she had to leave the tour early, and of course I'm looking forward to seeing her in the Les Mis film. I'm sure she'll do a fantastic job, although when she first shows up in the film it will be hard for not to think "Ooh, I've seen her live! Twice!"
The ensemble cast in Oliver! was very strong as well. Jack Edwards played Mr Bumble and his vocals on Boy For Sale were stunning. Emma Dukes was pretty good as Bet, Nancy's best friend. Unfortunately I can't remember who played the Artful Dodger and Oliver but they were great too. The kid who played Oliver in the show certainly did a far better version of Where is Love? than the kid in the film! All of the kids in general were great though. They were full of energy and enthusiasm and you could really tell that they were having a good time!
The only warning that I would give about this show - and it's not really a criticism, just a statement - is that I really don't think it's something that children should be seeing. Or at least not very young children anyway. When I saw Oliver! I spotted quite a few secondary school children on what looked like a school trip and that made sense to me: a Dickens based musical, teachers trying to get their students into classic literature, yadda yadda yadda. But I'm also aware that Oliver! is generally considered a family friendly musical and I really don't see why. I think it's because it has upbeat, cheerful tunes like Consider Yourself and Who Will Buy? and has a large cast of children in it. People seem to forget that the show also features starvation, poverty, child abuse, pickpocketing, domestic violence and murder! Admittedly, Nancy's murder in the show wasn't graphic. Sykes knocked Nancy down and she fell behind something - I can't remember what it was now - so only her legs were sticking out. Bill dived down, the orchestra made banging sounds, Nancy's legs jerked around, and then Bill got up again looking shaken. I still think it's something that would freak some younger kids out though. There were some sexual innuendoes going on Oom Pah Pah as well, although saying that I think most of it would have gone right over the heads of any younger children in the audience.
Again, I was really surprised at how I much I enjoyed the show and now I would actually consider it one of my favourite musicals. I had a great time and the production was a very fitting tribute to both Dickens and Lionel Bart. I didn't know much about Lionel Bart before but the programme had a two-page biography about him. After writing Oliver! Bart wrote the musicals Blitz! and Maggie May and achieved modest success with those. He then decided to write a Robin Hood-themed musical called Twang!! but it was a complete and utter disaster. Hmm, that seems to be a pattern with Robin Hood! Apparently, Bart was too demanding and insisted on being in control over every single aspect of the production. Eventually the big West End backers got word of the troubles that were going on and backed out. Bart then rashly put his own money into the show to keep it running, but the opening night was dreadful and the reviews were catastrophic. Twang!! only lasted 43 performances and his next musical La Strada did even worse, lasting for just one night! Bart was heavily into drugs and alcohol at this point and it was clearly affecting his music and business judgement. Because he was so much in debt, due to his last two musicals being major flops, Bart was forced to sell the rights to Oliver!, but in doing so he gave away his one guaranteed royalties-earner. He then fell even further into drugs and alcohol and got even more into debt. But then in 1994 Cameron Mackintosh produced a new production of Oliver! - and because he now co-owned the rights - he gave Bart a share of his royalties back. I think Mackintosh deserves an enormous amount of credit for this. Shortly before Bart died in 1999 he was even talking about a return to writing musicals.
When I saw this musical I was in the stalls, not right at the front but I still had a great view. I'm seeing Phantom of the Opera at the Hippodrome in May 2013 with Earl Carpenter as the Phantom and I'm really looking forward to that. The Hippodrome isn't as fancy as most of the theatres on the West End are but it's a nice venue nonetheless and, well, I always look forward to seeing Phantom! It will be the 25th anniversary tour version which has gotten a very mixed response from fans of the West End version but I really liked it when I saw it. It's not as good as the West End version no but I still think it's an interesting alternative. I'll probably review it when I see it for the second time. Interestingly, both Oliver! and the 25th anniversary tour of Phantom were both directed by Laurence Connor. Mackintosh is clearly a big fan!
I think the musical is still touring so if you want an idea of what the show is like...