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Oliver! review at Curve, Leicester – ‘traditional production lacks bite’

Cat Simmons and ensemble in Oliver! at Curve, Leicester. Photo: Pamela Raith Cat Simmons and ensemble in Oliver! at Curve, Leicester last year. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Arguably Lionel Bart’s greatest work, Oliver! has long been a favourite with audiences for its catchy score, memorable characters and gripping story based on the Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist.

Originally opening in 1960, regular successful revivals have taken place both in the West End and the regions, and this production at Curve marks the first Christmas under the new leadership team of chief executive Chris Stafford and artistic director Nikolai Foster.

While Bart took many liberties with the original story, cutting huge swathes of the plot to suit a musical structure, his narrative seems remarkably relevant in 2015. The destitute are demonised, criminal activity is rife amid urban decay and the gap between rich and poor is inordinately vast.

These themes occasionally stand out in director Paul Kerryson’s production but are never really exploited. Rather than embracing the dark side, we are offered the acceptable face of Dickensian London: dirty-faced cherubs, Fortnum’s home deliveries and lots of energetic choreography. Such elements are a symptom of the 1968 movie, rather than Bart’s original work.

Tumbling servants with oversize blancmange and turkeys lend a cartoonish element to Andrew Wright’s usually buoyant choreography and conflict with the ominous hyper-realism of Matt Kinley’s set design. Thankfully the set pieces for Consider Yourself and Who Will Buy seem more in keeping with the mood, and feature great work from the ensemble.

The Sowerberrys and the Bumbles are played mostly for comedy, and quite right too. Jenna Boyd’s pneumatically malevolent Widow Corney soon makes mincemeat of James Gant’s gin-swigging Bumble. These excesses are counterpointed perfectly by the austerity and economy of Jez Unwin’s excellent Mr Sowerberry.

The cast of children, all locally sourced, are a credit to their individual drama tutors and bring genuine characters into Fagin’s gang, notably Kwame Kandekore as a light-footed Dodger. In this performance, Albert Hart takes the title role (alternating with Liam Carr) and lends a feisty sense of resilience to the character, whether breaking hearts with a plaintive Where Is Love or breaking Bill Sykes’ nose in a genuinely jaw-dropping moment in Act II.

In fairness, Kerryson does play around with moments in the story, introducing Oliver Boot’s ominous Sykes slightly earlier and then allowing My Name to unfold as more of a psychotic episode rather than song, elaborating his relationship with Cat Simmons’ spirited Nancy.

Peter Polycarpou offers a fairly unadventurous Fagin, perhaps less agile than some and, in keeping with the production, less keen to explore the darker elements of his role in Oliver’s abduction and Nancy’s death.

On the whole, former Curve artistic director Kerryson is playing it safe for the audiences he has helped nurture, delivering a solid, traditional show supported by decent production values and a capable cast. The result, however, lacks bite, and failing to draw on the darker elements of the story lessens its overall impact immeasurably.

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Traditional, solid production that has its moments but generally lacks bite