Starlight Theatre Company
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by Margaret Chrystall
IT’S not easy to create a five-star experience with a stage musical like Oliver! which many of us remember from a pretty near-perfect film — but Starlight Musical Theatre have done it.
Great leads play cheeky Artful Dodger (Dan Corr), big-hearted Nancy (Alison Gilbert), loveable rogue Fagin (Garry Black), adorable Oliver (Lachy Hogg) and sinisterly brutal Bill Sykes (Jason Hasson) – not to mention cute canine Nellie as Bullseye.
The choruses — adult and junior — are big-voiced, precision-rehearsed and switched-on all the time they’re onstage. And the sense of excitement started from the moment the 12-strong orchestra — under musical director Fiona Stuart — begins with xylophone, trilling flute, parping brass and a couple of trombone slides that suggested not just the comedy and excitement ahead, but the scary bits too with — first to come onstage — bad Bill Sykes.
On Thursday night - second of the run at Eden Court - all he had to do was growl "Stupid dog ... Bullseye!" for dog Nellie to turn tail and run the other way for the crowd’s first big "Awww!"of the night.
The young chorus passed their first test with a commited performance of Food Glorious Food! complete with authentic mimed vomiting and eating the served-up gruel as if they’d been starved for a week.
And in the famous "Please, sir, I want some more!" moment, Lachy Hogg quickly set up an Oliver who was both vulnerable and brave, if occasionally his intonation wavered, somehow just adding authenticity to the sound of a frightened child.
Both couples who use him as a commodity to buy and sell – workhouse staff Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney, then the undertakers, the Sowerberrys – were little masterpieces of characterisation in their own right and created a convincing set of greedy, uncaring adults.
But sorting out Mr Bumble’s misbehaving radio microphone gave an unscheduled extra comic scene, as the subtle-as-possible sound man initially crouched down behind a sofa as Bumble courted Mrs Corney. But he had to give up and follow Alan Macleod around the stage – to the delight of the laughing audience – till the technology finally behaved itself.
Dan Corr as Fagin’s wily captain of lost boys and mini master-pickpocket owned the role of the Artful Dodger in his long leather boots and wonky top hat.
Along with Alison Gilbert as Nancy, their larking around as toffs in I’d Do Anything, is one of the highlights of the show - but there are many.
In a scarlet gown, Gilbert and director Roma MacAskill make Nancy the vibrant, beating heart of the production and she remains as a tragic presence contrasting with the happy endings around her as the final curtain falls.
As well as strong vocal performances in As Long As He Needs Me, It’s A Fine Life and fun pub singalong Oom Pah Pah, Gilbert brings a bitter-sweet power to the role of the tart with a heart.
Her Nancy has a sense of fun, fragile self-worth and dangerous, unconditional love for Sykes to make the brutality he inflicts on the character seem more heartbreaking, unjust – and a timeless story of domestic violence.
The production zipped along, as it must to get through Dickens’ story and scenes that worked best included Oom Pah Pah, Sykes’ chilling arrival in My Name and the Who Will Buy? scene with the street cry of each trader – such as Michelle Newell as the rose-seller – nicely balanced against the others.
The little boy from Fagin’s pickpocket gang who stood out for happily doing his own thing sometimes, added a welcome maverick charm to the group scenes and a spark of hope for Fagin as they and Nellie set off into the future.
With this production, Starlight leaves you – like Oliver – hungry for more.
There are two remaining performances on Saturday at Eden Court, at 2.30pmand 7.30pm. More info: www.eden-court.co.uk and 01463 234234.