It is difficult to overstate the influence of Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical, which was “freely adapted” from Charles Dickens’s famous novel Oliver Twist. The show is a theatrical evergreen, spawning innumerable productions on Broadway, in the West End and around the world.
More than that, however, there is Carol Reed’s famous 1968 film version, not to mention the various adverts that have used Bart’s songs from the show. Indeed, who can doubt that Monty Python’s child-filled, BAFTA-nominated satirical number Every Sperm is Sacred (from their 1983 movie The Meaning of Life) was inspired by Oliver?
There are, surely, two primary sources of this deep and continued interest in Bart’s musical. The first is our society’s on-going fascination with Dickens’s story of the titular orphan who is born in a Victorian workhouse, sold into service and enticed into the gang of child pickpockets run by the robber king Fagin.
The other is Bart’s song list itself. From Food Glorious Food, to Consider Yourself, You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, I’d Do Anything and Reviewing the Situation, one would struggle to think of many British musicals that have brought forth such an abundance of memorable and much-loved numbers.
Enduringly popular though the show is, it is, nevertheless, somewhat counter-intuitive for James Brining, artistic director of Leeds Playhouse, to stage it as his production for the festive season. To most Yuletide theatre-goers, Dickens in December means A Christmas Carol.
As Christmassy as a sweltering summer in Lanzarote Oliver! may be, Brining’s decision to take it on has been rewarded marvellously. Thoughtful, brilliantly cast and splendidly designed, the production is an undoubted success.
The show is played in a theatre-in-the-round in the Playhouse’s main auditorium. It boasts clever, minimal design (by Colin Richmond), combined with numerous platforms and staircases, all of which help to generate the pace and drama of the piece.
Brining’s universally excellent cast is positively brimming with talented children, not least Nicholas Teixeira (who was a remarkably sympathetic and vulnerable Oliver on opening night) and Felix Holt (a seemingly cocky, yet, ultimately, anguished Artful Dodger). The adult players are equally impressive, with Minal Patel (Mr Bumble) and Rosie Ede (Widow Corney) simultaneously detestable and hilarious as the avaricious workhouse managers, while Chris Bennett is suitably menacing as the thuggish criminal Bill Sikes.
However, the standout performer, from a musical theatre perspective, is Jenny Fitzpatrick (in the role of Sikes’s ill-fated lover Nancy). A problematically self-sacrificial female character Nancy may be, but Fitzpatrick sings the role with gorgeous depth, range and emotion (particularly in her solo number As Long as He Needs Me).
Steve Furst is superb in the deeply problematic role of Fagin. He seeks, as did Bart (who was himself Jewish), to offset the antisemitism of Dickens’s characterisation by bringing an element of humanity to the part.
By the time the show reaches its powerfully sudden conclusion, there’s no doubting that this Leeds Playhouse production is an unalloyed triumph.
Until January 27. Tickets: 0113 213 7700; leedsplayhouse.org.uk