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Theatre review Bartful dodger

SUSAN DARLINGTON is swept along by a spirited and borderline political production of Lionel Bart’s masterpiece

Oliver! 
Leeds Playhouse

ESCALATING child hunger and poverty have given renewed topicality to Lionel Bart’s Oliver! 

In this latest revival, directed by James Brining, heaped platters of meats and savouries are paraded past rows of ravenous workhouse children. Gluttonous fat cats feast on a balcony as they look down — physically and metaphorically — on youngsters who are given meagre bowls of gruel.

It’s a powerful depiction of social inequality that could make the 1960 musical, which is based on the Charles Dickens novel, an awkward fit for a festive family show. Brining has nonetheless navigated the production with great care. The politics are unavoidable, but he also delivers on the familiar showtunes, joyous choreography and makes the audience warm to the central cast.

The young actors, who were chosen through an open call-out, are exceptional throughout. Nicholas Teixeira — one of three Olivers playing the role — has a confidence that belies his nine years, especially for his solo rendition of Where Is Love? Felix Holt’s Artful Dodger comes close to Cockney caricature, but his likeability saves the day, confidently leading the ensemble through Consider Yourself. 

Such ensemble pieces are central to the production’s warmth, with the diverse cast showing absolute commitment to Lucy Hind’s choreography. The aforementioned song is a particular showstopper, making full use of the in-the-round staging to make every audience member feel “at home.” The introduction of colourful costumes, where previous scenes had largely been played in monochromes, creates a sense of joy despite the backdrop of child labour.

From the adult cast the runaway star is Jenny Fitzpatrick as Nancy. She plays the role of the “fallen woman” with a defiant, big-hearted sassiness and her powerhouse vocals virtually lift the rafters. Yet she’s also the most problematic character, the lyrics to As Long As He Needs Me making for uncomfortable listening due to the abusive, coercive relationship she has with the brutish Bill Sikes (a physically imposing Chris Bennett). 

In contrast, the often-problematic portrayal of Fagin is here largely resolved. Steve Furst is an avuncular eccentric, with his ethnicity only signalled through klezmer-inflected violin. He looks out for his gang of pickpockets the best way he knows, offering Oliver a kind word and “a home, a profession, a shilling (on credit).”

This caring approach risks undermining the novel’s social commentary, although the themes of child cruelty, abuse and neglect still warrant content warnings posted on the auditorium doors. Yet the optimism and chutzpah of the performance, with the scaffolded set coming into its own in the closing act, means the audience are left asking for more.

Runs until January 27 2024. Box office: (0113) 213-7700, leedsplayhouse.org.uk.

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