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posted/updated: 11 May 2019 -
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lionel Bart
society/company: Preston Musical Comedy Society (directory)
performance date: 08 May 2019
venue: Preston Guild Hall PR1 1HT
reviewer/s: Graham Whalan (Sardines review)


If the quality and entertainment value of a musical production can be gauged by audience response, this show is clearly a winner. I have rarely sat amongst a crowd who were so vocal and enthusiastic in their appreciation for both the individual and the ensemble pieces. Oliver! Is such a popular and frequently-staged show, one wonders if it is possible to bring a fresh touch to the proceedings, but Preston Musical Comedy Society have somehow achieved just that.

Having said that, their attempt to add something new at the outset in staging Oliver’s birth, could perhaps have been safely omitted. It came over as a fairly muted scene with low impact. But with that out of the way I was immediately impressed by the stage set, which then plunged us straight into the austere and grimy world of the Victorian Workhouse. Subsequent scene changes then seamlessly transported us to the creepiness of Sowerberry’s funeral parlour, the shabby homeliness of Fagin’s Den, and the vibrant streets of London.

As to the players, 11-year-old Owen Dickinson gives a stand-out performance as Oliver, conveying both innocent bewilderment at his lot, feisty rebellion, and his aching sense of emptiness with his superb rendition of Where is Love? Jack Barratt’s Artful Dodger also brings the cheery self-importance of his character to life although, after the animated welcome given to Oliver through Consider Yourself, he perhaps could make his presence felt more fully.

Ian Lawson as Bumble and Emma Norman as Widow Corney are a great comic turn and, though both are making their debut with the society, I’m sure they will be back. They are clearly having as much fun in their roles as we were watching them. Stephen Hall and Delphine Walton are also good value as the Sowerberry’s, with the choreography of Oliver's escape deftly managed to extract as many laughs as possible from the scene.

Kathy Anderson brings both heart and tragedy to the role of Nancy from the lively It’s a Fine Life and Oom-Pah-Pah to the heart-wrenching pathos of As Long As He Needs Me. Her vocals are strong and pitch-perfect, and it is clear she knows just what she is singing about. For me she is everything I would want Nancy to be. James Moss as Bill Sykes is suitably menacing, though he is somewhat up-staged by his dog, Bullseye, who clearly feels left out during My Name and insists on joining in.

Gary Jones-McCaw’s Fagin is equally impressive, bringing his own interpretation to the role along with perhaps a touch of Captain Jack Sparrow. Along with the rest of the audience I really enjoyed his delivery of his key piece, Reviewing the Situation where, behind his devious bluster, we also learn something about Fagin’s hidden vulnerabilities. The interplay between him and the anonymous violinist is priceless.

The ensemble pieces are clearly enhanced by Lorna Cookson’s energetic and spirited choreography, and all elicit a rousing cheer from the audience. (The mischievous rascally turn of one of the boy’s in Fagin’s Den particularly caught my eye.) In fact all members of the creative team are to be congratulated, especially perhaps Charles Moss and his talented group of musicians who add hugely to the drive and atmosphere of the show. Rather than over-powering the singers (as is sometimes the case) the music very much complements the action, the volume rising and falling in line with the drama unfolding on the stage.

I have seen Oliver! a few times now. Although this is a traditional sort of interpretation the Preston group have, as I say, managed to bring a freshness to the story with their inventive comedic touches which are all carefully balanced with the darker aspects of the piece. Overall this is a hugely enjoyable show. The programme makes the claim that the Preston Society is one of the most highly regarded Societies in the North-west. With this production, one can see why.

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