I first suspected that something had gone spectacularly badly wrong with the London revival of Oliver when I realised midway through the first half that I was more interested in the struggles of the mothers around me to control their children than I was in what was happening on stage. My plight was confirmed when I had a serious attack of hysterical laughter during the murder of Nancy and the suicide of Bill Sykes. The show’s descent into farce in its closing moments is virtually its only redeeming feature. Otherwise it is a nearly indescribable disaster. Nevertheless, in the interest of our readers, I shall endeavour to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of this dross.
The first problem is unquestionably the show itself. Bart’s music and lyrics are weak throughout. The various characters, with the exception of Fagin and Oliver, have almost nothing with which to work to establish themselves. Success therefore depends more than usual on quality performances from all concerned. Convincing acting is needed if empathy is to be created over the weaknesses of the text. Which brings us to the second problem – basically there was not a single decent performance from anyone in the company.
Those who followed the TV show which selected Jodie Prenger to play Nancy will know that three Olivers were also selected. For unexplained reasons we saw a fourth Oliver. I cannot reproduce his name as the insert from my programme is probably still under the seat in the theatre but I regret to say he was not up to the task. Anybody can have the misfortune to fluff a big note, especially at that age, as was the case in Where is Love. The larger problem was his acting – he just didn’t really stand out among the other children, and he delivered his spoken lines and sang his songs with all kinds of odd pauses as if he didn’t really understand them. A director could perhaps have provided some guidance to help him but here, as elsewhere, there was precious little evidence of direction at all.
Rowan Atkinson was out with a hernia and replaced by his understudy, Tim Laurenti. He gave a perfectly fine performance, but there was nothing special about him – classic understudy material. Jodie Prenger as Nancy was hampered by the bizarre miking (which made her near inaudible in Om-Pa-Pa) and by bizarre staging (which meant that during As Long As He Needs Me one was constantly distracted by people removing tables from the stage) but she was not as impressive as she was on the TV show – I suspect this is a case of the camera being kind. It is perhaps worth noting that Jesse Buckley does not suffer in this way in the stellar A Little Night Music.
The rest of the cast, including I regret to say Julian Glover, should be heartily ashamed of themselves. Their acting would disgrace a high school production of this show. It is difficult to tell whether anybody gave any direction at all but if they did it seemed to be confined to shouting louder, and hamming every line up to the nth degree. Even worse than this were the various fight scenes. Sykes’ murder of Nancy should be spine-chilling – here it was the cue for my descent into hilarity. Prenger fell over before a blow had connected, behind a conveniently placed lamp-post, and Sykes proceeded to pound the area behind the lamp-post with his staff in such a way that one never for a moment believed that a blow was connecting with anything other than the stage. When he began to exclaim Quasimodo style "the eyes! The eyes!” the farce was complete.
While this appalling acting dragged on, the set whizzed around with insane rapidity. This is a London of the most animated architecture I have ever seen. Bridges whizz up and down, bedrooms rise and fall, the set alters course with pointless regularity. To begin with the effects are quite impressive, but pretty soon this disappears as the movements of the set become ever more unnecessary. The disjunction between set and show reaches a climax in the scene when Bill Sykes is supposed to fall to his death from the London rooftops. Having had upteen London bridges high above the Drury Lane stage thus establishing a sense of a multiple-level London, for this key moment, the suicide took place as if from a first floor balcony. Of course Sykes hopeless acting didn’t help to convince one that he was really plunging to his doom.
A brief word is necessary about choreography and miking. The former was one of those odd occasions where somehow it just didn’t quite match up with the music – it was all very smart and slick but it just didn’t quite fit. The miking was dreadful – Julian Glover was about the only person who delivered his lines audibly – the diction of the rest of the company was abominable and another cause for shame. Everything seemed to be at the same level throughout – it is possible to mic intelligently (for example foregrounding different performers in their solo numbers) and something should be done to rectify this forthwith.
Overall this production looks like a show in the third year of its run, rather than one which has only been on stage since January. And it raises the intriguing question of who is responsible for this horror. Cameron Mackintosh very clearly indicated his preference for a different winner of the BBC show – did Jodie’s selection lead him to wash his hands of the whole thing? Rupert Goold is credited with reviving Sam Mendes’s staging, but he has had so many employments in the last year and there was so little indication of direction that one wonders if his sole contribution to the proceedings was to tell the stage hands when to move the next bridge into position. (It is also possible that this show is more evidence for my strong view that Goold is being massively over-rated – I thought his Patrick Stewart Macbeth was abysmal – but since this was a revival and a collaboration I reserve judgement on the point).
I am left with two really depressing thoughts. First, I shudder to think what this revival indicates about the West End audition process. It is incredible to think that any of these disgraceful adult performers can possibly have secured their parts through a competitive audition – if they did so then the auditioners must have been drunk, deaf, blind or blackmailed. Secondly, it is sad to think that many of the children in the audience may have been getting their first taste of a big theatrical show and will go away thinking these kind of standards are a fair indication of the medium.
All those responsible for this mess should hang their heads in shame. At least the ghastly ENO Kismet was an amusing train-wreck with the bonus of one superb performance from Michael Ball. There is nothing redeeming about Oliver at all.