Wellington Operatic Society’s latest production delivered Lionel Bart’s classic, much-loved and often revived show, ‘Oliver’, to the Wellesley Theatre this week – and provided the first-night full house with an evening’s entertainment of considerable quality, writes Gill Paltridge
Throughout the whole performance it is the voices that are most impressive – and this is the first requirement of any musical. Philip Pullicino’s Oliver gives ‘Where is Love’ an exceptional poignancy and, if his acting skills are not yet in the same league as his singing, being on stage with a number of fine adult actors should provide him with useful markers for the future. His frequent physical struggles in the hands of less than kind adults need to be actual, rather than feigned but he presents appropriately waif-like naivety faced with the cruelty and corruption of the world. As the Artful Dodger, Kiera Chard is comfortable in the role, needing just a little more exaggeration to make the character as colourful as her costume. These two actors represent a body of talented youngsters who will have gained both knowledge and skill from their involvement in this show.
Of the adults, Christine Green’s Nancy is astonishing. Given a role that steps straight out of a soap-opera (which Dickens’ novel undoubtedly is) she proves wholly capable of delivering both the gut-busting song ‘As long as he needs me’ and fills the stage – and the theatre – with her huge voice and pure unconditional sentimentality. If ‘As’ sounds like ‘Has’ in her rendition, she follows a long pedigree of the same error.
In terms of performance, Richard Matravers interprets undertaker Sowerberry as repugnantly creepy. Here is an actor who knows full well how to make his body as well as his voice convey character. He looks as though he has just crept out from under a tombstone and is feeling the air for death. It is his eloquently precise definition of his role that may make Mike Hamilton’s Fagin seem a bit restrained in comparison – and Ron Moody’s definitive portrayal may also be responsible!
Once again, it is this actor’s voice that is his strength – and he has two of the show’s best numbers in ‘Pick a pocket or two’ and ‘Reviewing the situation’ to show it off. Both demand considerable physical virtuosity and energy, both rather lacking here. Maybe it’s his really unhelpful wig that is a problem. Yes, of course Fagin should be unkempt but a wig that looks like a mop-head and a bad beard are definitely impediments. Elsewhere, Leon Searle is very obviously entirely at home on a stage – as his list of theatrical credits beyond Wellington affirm. His Bill Sykes is suitably snarling pit-bullish, a nasty, venomous piece of work capable of shattering skulls with his growl alone. His death, though, drew titters from the audience – when it should be both horrific and appropriate.
Director John Walker’s command of his cast is frequently impressive, especially in specifically detailed dramatic touches and in crowd scenes which test the mettle of a director. The orchestrated spoon-rattling of the hungry urchins and their presentation as oppressed and regimented under Mr Bumble’s beady eye is, literally, sensational. The freer physical feeling on London’s teeming streets is evoked strongly and ushers in some really skillfully choreographed dance and movement sequences from Charlie Evans. ‘I’d do anything’ and ‘Be back soon’ are finely worked routines and ‘Oom-pah-pa’ opened the second act with a genuine burst of energy and verve. If the pace of the show stalls a little towards the end, this may be the fault of the musical as a whole, rather than the direction.
An inventive and effective set takes the audience into Dickens’ murky world of pernicious squalor and cruelty through the daunting gates of the workhouse. The dome of St Paul’s rises imperiously above the smog-filled gloom that lacks only a waft of Thames stench to be totally convincing.. A steep bridge crosses the proscenium, cutting the acting area into zones. Thus, a set design which makes full use of the theatre’s minuscule stage on different levels is, from the start, effective. If one or two scene-changes do get a bit overly fussy and prolonged later, they are punctuated by Hilary Wickham’s accomplished musical direction. And, from the overture onwards, she maintains a very tight rein on both her musicians and the performers on stage, laying down the required tone and tempo of each musical number, keeping the show moving smoothly.
Much credit too should go to Carol Watkins for turning out a cast that looked right – if, at times, a bit too clean and polished. Visually, ‘Who will buy’ was delightful. With the addition of bit of theatrical dirt and the mucking-up of shiny shampooed hair, the sordid nastiness of Dickens’ 1830’s world could be more strongly evoked. Lionel Bart’s musical does sanitize the grimness of the novel’s emphasis on social injustice and hypocrisy and the unhealthy underworld of child labour and criminality, so the production is not at fault here but a bit more scruff would not go amiss.
Matt Redstone’s lighting deserves a special mention. He laid down the right atmosphere and tones in each scene and, without a bigger theatre’s technical trickery at his disposal, made the visual elements of the show effective.
The production as a whole draws together a whole body of willing and able performers and technicians of all ages, totally committed to long weeks and months of preparation; it attracts large numbers of the local community to a good-quality performance rich in talent and skill; it invites visitors and guests to share entertainment that delivers on almost every level. And for all that, Wellington Operatic Society should be proud – and it will continue to attract committed performers from across the region to its future productions as a result of this show.
And to put the whole venture into perspective, here’s what Director John Walker said after the first night: “The numbers that turned up for opening night were quite amazing. We are so very lucky to have the Wellesley as our venue and I am so blessed to have such an amazing production team of helpers to have worked tirelessly on the set – which was set only on the Sunday am ready for the Tech on Sunday evening and they continued the fine tuning literally through the Dress until the last hour before the show
“Some of the crew were at the theatre from 8 am and did not leave until 11pm on opening night. The company then has just hours to get used to the feel of the whole set which is not an easy feat when you have two sets of twenty children and thirty adults. This is what I love about theatre – if the floor boards could tell a story it would be one that started “I love the smell of the Theatre”, the heartaches, the backaches etc – there’s no business like show- business but in our case we do it because we absolutely love the whole big canvas.”
Tickets £9.00 [concessions £7.00 on Tuesday and Saturday matinee]are from “Cloud Nine”, Fore Street, Wellington. Telephone enquiries: 01823-663597.
Photos: Sue Kerry