first night


Sophie Williams considers Oliver! at Hild Bede.

Oliver! is an ambitious musical to stage with any cast, let alone as a college musical. Based on Dickens’s celebrated novel Oliver Twist, the play follows the misadventures of young Oliver from workhouse to lap of luxury, though the musical takes a lighter tone than that of the Victorian tome. With popular film versions to contend with and some very challenging solos for post-pubescent singers, director Hannah Brennan and her team had a lot to live up to.

The HBT production began with a burst of energy as the chorus broke into ‘Food Glorious Food’. The choreography was brilliant from the off, with the workhouse children - all played by women, unusually - parading down the aisle into the audience and, catching us unawares, showering us with glitter – along with a waft of coffee from the stained (but authentic) costumes. Collective laughter greeted the arrival of the pompous Mr Bumble, played fabulously by Michael McLauchlin. Between strutting about in his fat suit and leering lecherously at lovesick women (Lord knows what they see in him!), he made an excellent comic relief, particularly when twinned with the antagonism of Mrs Bumble (Lucy Oliver) – their crass courtship (‘I shall scream’) was one of the highlights of the night.

It’s not hard to pity poor Oliver (Rory Quinn) in the parlour of the Sowerberry home. Stuart Marshfield and Jenny Hobbiss seemed to relish their roles as the loathsome undertakers, and do a fantastic job of appearing suitably creepy in the song ‘That’s Your Funeral’. Again, it’s worth commending the choreography, which was very creative, particularly in group numbers. Charlotte Sowerby (Kirsty McLaren), like her parents, was extremely aggressive towards the eponymous hero – seemingly without any provocation – but the porridge fight that followed was highly entertaining nevertheless.

And now to the principal characters. Quinn is very convincing as the wide-eyed, longsuffering Oliver, and manages an incredible falsetto for the solos. You could feel the audience tense, waiting for his voice to crack or break – but it didn’t. Meanwhile, Maddy Sakakini’s Nancy sang boldly and beautifully, with plenty of sass and cockney-twang: her rendition of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ was stunning.   Alice Wyatt played the artful dodger. I was initially skeptical about a female counterpart to Quinn’s Oliver, but it worked remarkably well: Wyatt made the role her own, capturing all the vivacity and cheekiness required of Dodger, particularly in the way she skipped and darted about the stage. Given this was her debut performance - and one would never have guessed if it weren’t for the programme! - I was particularly impressed by her abilities. But the real show-stealer was Joe Skelton’s Fagin. Skelton is absurdly talented; everything about the way he moved, spoke and sang was in keeping with the character, and he looked the part as well. There was nothing lacking in his performance, and even if this production had had any major flaws (which it didn’t), it would be worth the ticket price to see his performance. The charisma of Fagin made it difficult for Bill Sykes (Morten Jacobsen) to make as big an impression as he ought to, but he still managed to pull off a menacing villain.

There are only a couple of criticisms to note, one of which was the faulty sound system. Some of the microphones were not functioning at all or kicked in late, which was irritating, and meant that some lines of song/dialogue were drowned out by the orchestra, who played impeccably. One seller lost her voice during ‘Who Will Buy?’ but bravely carried on in spite of her evident difficulty. Also, the ending - which I won’t spoil - felt very rushed, and I was slightly surprised to find the denouement over so quickly, but perhaps that’s just a sign of having a good time.

Overall, Hild Bede Theatre’s Oliver! provided everything I’d expect from a decent musical – light-hearted, lively entertainment from a very talented cast. It was extremely enjoyable, and deserves a much larger audience than the one present tonight. I’d urge anyone reading this not to miss out on one of the best productions I’ve seen so far this year: you’ll ‘consider yourself’ better for it.

Sophie Williams

28 February 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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