Thursday, February 29

Oliver! – Leeds Playhouse

Over the last few years Leeds Playhouse have offered all sorts of challenging festive spectaculars but this deliciously dark revival of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece Oliver! is the best yet.

You need some nerve to take on such a beloved musical, and Oscar laden movie, so the Playhouse’s Artistic Director James Brining has cleverly placed his version in the round. Colin Richmond’s design leaves the cavernous Quarry space full of raised spaces and walkways, becoming the sort of dank and dark Victorian London that Charles Dickens painted teeming with all human life and plenty of menace.

Brining is a great director of children, and when a well drilled junior ensemble sings and dances through a lively Food Glorious Food it’s clear a big and diverse cast have used their time in the rehearsal room wisely. Along with a strong adult ensemble they offer a thoughtful show full of light and shade as orphan Oliver is thrown out of workhouse by the ghastly Mr Bumbles after asking for more. His dangerous journey takes him into a gang of juvenile crooks led by the shady Fagin before finding redemption at great cost to those around him.

There are big versions of those iconic music hall inspired songs from an almost perfect score, played with real verve by a live band, but Brining never shies away from the darkness in Bart’s book. Child abuse, prostitution, murder, poverty, crime, rigid class structures and what happens when there is no welfare state are all here. If you’re taking your kids out for a jolly festive theatrical experience this might not be the best choice.

But if you do take the risk then you may get to see a remarkable nine year old Nicholas Teixerira, who was tonight’s Oliver, and so assured in this big role singing quite exquisitely on a haunting Where Is Love? He’s on stage pretty much the whole show and didn’t put a foot wrong as our wan faced hero.

Equally confident was 11-year-old Felix Holt as the Artful Dodger, with just the right amount of cheeky cockney charm as he cavorted round the stage. The confident way he led virtually the whole company through a thrilling version of Consider Yourself, brilliantly choreographed by Lucy Hind, suggested we have a star of the future.   

In the movie Ron Moody who was Jewish himself toned down the antisemitism in Dickens’ original text making his Fagin as more of a clown and ruthless survivor. British comedy stalwart Steve Furst offers this complex and charming exploiter of children as a damaged man shaped by his own struggles during a lively You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two.  Furst is a good singer, and his smart reading of the reflective Reviewing The Situation leaves you wondering just who is the real villain here – Fagin who only answers to his own urges, or the venal Mr Bumble who nominally at least represents an uncaring state?

Credit: Alastair Muir

There are no real heroes in the Victorian underclass but Nancy as the surrogate mother of Fagin’s gang comes close. West End veteran Jenny Fitzpatrick is one minute leading a pub through a riotous Oom-Pah-Pah, and then she is peeling back all the hurt so you see why Nancy is prepared to do what she does for Oliver. Her soaring rendition of As Long As He Needs Me full of power and control fills this huge spac, but also captures the raw pain of an abused woman trying to make some sense of her terrible situation.

Chris Bennett is a powerfully built hulk of a Bill Sikes, and the moment this classic psychopath swaggers into a happy pub to sing My Name! and the mood instantly changes was utterly chilling.  He certainly earned the big boo he got at curtain call as an ironic mark of respect for a job well done.

Oliver may be a timely piece about what happens when people are left with no safety net, but this intelligent and beautifully staged production with a top class ensemble also leaves you very much considering yourself part of the family. Albeit a messed up one.

Oliver is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 27th January 2024. To book or 0113 2137700.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 1st December 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.