Content note: Oliver! contains mature and adult themes, depictions of physical violence, strobe and haze smoke effects, and loud noises.
Savoyards has returned to the Iona Performing Arts Centre stage with their production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! featuring more than fifty talented local performers in this classic tale about an orphaned boy who asks for more.
A musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, the story follows a young orphan boy, Oliver, who is raised in a London workhouse, escapes his apprenticeship as an undertaker, and falls in with a crowd of child pickpockets led by the elderly criminal Fagin. When Oliver is caught and blamed for a robbery, a wealthy gentleman rescues and takes him in – but Oliver discovers that it is not so easy to leave his life on the streets behind him. Although Oliver!, like Dickens’ book, is a grim social commentary on poverty, crime, and violence, the musical also emphasises compassion, connection, and holding on to hope against all odds.
The titular role will be shared throughout the Savoyards season by young performers Fraser Goodreid and Jeremiah Rees, and we saw the latter perform as Oliver on opening night. Rees played a wonderfully naïve Oliver, and his singing voice was sweet and clear.
Priya Shah was a standout vocalist and performer in the role of Nancy, bright and big-hearted in her attention to Oliver and the other children, and heartbreaking in her dedication to Sikes despite his violence. The role of Nancy’s companion Bet was played by Sarah-Jane Lakshman instead of Katie Nowland, due to illness, and Lakshman also contributed to the beautiful harmonies of Who Will Buy? as the Rose Seller. Director David Harrison also played two roles – Mr Sowerberry and Dr Grimwig – for the opening night performance, due to cast illness.
Warryn James played the role of Fagin, adopting a stiff, distinctive gait and fidgeting gestures, and Oliver Dobrenov gave an impressive performance as Artful Dodger, leading a skilful ensemble of children and young people who performed as the workhouse orphans and Fagin’s gang. Raymond Gillmore was threatening as Fagin’s associate Bill Sikes, and his final scene was thrillingly climactic. Phillipa Bowe and Rod Jones were an amusing pair as Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, with excellent comedic timing.
The staging and choreography made full use of the auditorium space, and formation changes were particularly visually effective with such a large cast moving in unison. Choreographed chase scenes worked in tandem with lighting design by Gabrielle Burton to create further drama and action. The dancers – Jessica Boersen, Jade Davis, Miranda James, and Poppy Nobes – performed more complicated choreography, and acrobatic tricks were also included throughout.
Bart’s score was wonderfully performed by a live orchestra, with musical direction by Jacqueline Atherton, to the extent that sometimes I forgot that the music was not pre-recorded. Violinist Ann Whitaker’s musical skill had a particular moment in the spotlight, onstage as the busker in Reviewing the Situation.
There were technical issues with Warryn James’ microphone in his first scenes, and the voices of Fagin’s gang occasionally overpowered his as a result, but these were resolved as the musical progressed. There was also occasionally noise from backstage through the microphones, which distracted from the more dramatic scenes.
Set design by Sherryl-Lee Secomb brought the grimy streets of London to life, with the soft glow of windows, the different levels of the balcony and bridge, and cleverly unfolding set pieces and signs. Costuming designed by Kim Heslewood (& team), with wigs, hair, and makeup designed by Lynne Swain, contributed to the memorable characters, from Artful Dodger’s top hat to Sikes’ ponytail and Fagin’s tattered coat. Each cast member went through a number of costume changes, and the cast also managed the movement of set pieces and props throughout the performance.
Oliver! was an energetic, entertaining, and emotionally engaging performance, an impressive community theatre production delivered by a talented and passionate cast.
Oliver! will play at Iona Performing Arts Centre, Lindum, from 18 June – 2 July 2022.