(Brisbane Arts Theatre)


Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, from the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Amateur production

You have to give it to Brisbane Arts Theatre; they do a very good musical, and Lionel Bart’s Oliver! is a very good musical indeed.

It was Bart’s only real success he soon became an alcoholic and eventually died of cancer at the age of 69 but it was a hit from the moment of its first performance, winning the Tony Award for 1964. In 1968 it was made into a film starring Ron Moody, Shani Wallace, Oliver Reed, Hugh Griffith and Harry Secombe, and it won six Academy Awards.

Such a cast is a hard act to follow, and nobody is pretending that the current BAT performers are the world’s greatest actors, but they are all very accomplished singers, with some truly wonderful voices among them. Catherine Collings as Nancy is the stand-out she sounds as if she’s had professional training, and has a stage presence to match, totally in control and beefing out her more flamboyant numbers with never a false step or note but there are other good singers as well, including Elspeth Sutherland (Widow Corney) and Simon Temple as Bill Sykes, thankfully looking as unlike Oliver Reed as it’s possible to be, and more like a taller nastier Robert Carlyle.

All the children’s parts are doubled, and the afternoon I saw the show Andrew Whitmore was Oliver and Taylor Pearce was The Artful Dodger. Andrew Whitmore has a particularly fine singing voice, and if he’s not in a cathedral choir he ought to be; while the gangly Taylor Pearce does some deft shoe-shuffling in the dance numbers, which made up for his weaker voice work.

It’s a fascinating musical, not least because of the irony that underlies its cheery score. In spite of its inevitable happy ending, the novel being a product of Victorian England, after all, Oliver Twist is one of Dickens’ grimmest novels, and in the musical Bart retains the most frightening elements of the plot, which deal with prostitution, murder, child exploitation and the cold heart of charity. Well may Oliver ask “Where is love?”, for there is precious little to be found among the London underclass portrayed in both novel and musical. Only in the refinement of the upper middle class can integrity and happiness be found, it seems, and even the good-hearted Nancy is doomed. Dickens’ novel is dark and desperate, and underneath the oom-pah-pah rhythms of Bart’s score and the cheerful lyrics, that darkness never disappears.

That’s one reason it’s not a musical for very young children. I went to a matinee performance, and many of the little kids there were getting restless in the second half, as the plot drew to its unavoidable violent conclusion. In the beginning everything may seem happy in Fagin’s den (although John Mulvihil portrays the evil beneath his superficial heartiness very well), and even the kids in the workhouse sing cheerfully about hot sausage and mustard, and cold jelly and custard, as if they are about to appear, and in Mr and Mrs Sowerberry’s funeral parlour the terror a pubescent boy must experience at being surrounded by death is never fully realised. But once Bill Sykes appears in the second half the mood changes rapidly, and there’s nothing more to laugh at.

As usual, Brisbane Arts Theatre has come up trumps with what is perforce a tiny budget, and Una Hollingworth has worked her customary magic with the sets, the tiny stage space morphing into at least eight different settings almost seamlessly, simply by moving a few flats and screens around. That woman is a genius, and I’d love to see what she could do with a serious budget. Sandra Hines’ costuming is another example of what can be done with very little, and I’ve seen far less impressive costumes in much flashier professional productions; while Phil Carney augments the stage setting with his innovative lighting. Admittedly the back-stage team at BAT have been working together for years, but they always manage to produce a visual image that augments what are sometimes flawed performances.

Not that there are many in this production, though. Some of the actors are very stiff in their movements and look quite uncomfortable during the big production numbers, and not all of them handle their lines very well, but luckily in this musical it’s mostly lyrics and not much text, so it doesn’t become a problem for the audience, who can sit back and enjoy it all.

With a cast of thousands like this well, 40 at least there’s no room for biographies, so I’ll never know whether Catherine Collings is a professional singer, or who the delicious tiny tot in the children’s chorus is. But as not everyone wants to know these details, it all comes down to a very pleasant experience at the theatre, and a production for which no apologies need to be made.

Director and musical director Rodney Wolff, co-director and choreographer Susan Gillingham

Playing until 24 June 2006: Thursday–Saturday at 8pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 30 minutes including 15 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 9th June 2006)