By its sheer weight of tuneful songs this remains one of the most popular musicals. The exclamation mark in the title could also be seen to reflect the enormity of staging it.
Dickens’s evocative tale of the orphan lad’s progression from Victorian workhouse through the grimy environments of back-street London to eventual long-overdue happiness demands numerous set changes and a great many faces.
Tim Willis’s bold production tackles them all head-on and if it tends to be a bit stop-start in the early stages, this will be smoothed out as the run continues.
By the time Oliver sings Where is Love? (hauntingly performed by Oscar George, who alternates the role with Megan Bignall), the emotional tug of Lionel Bart’s superb show is becoming evident. And when act two opens with the rampantly full-blooded Oom Pah Pah, we’re more than into the swing.
This show-stopping number is magnificently performed by Louise Woodward who so effectively etches the character of Nancy between bouts of bubbly high spirits and sad reflection (As Long as He Needs Me). There is eye-catching work too from Flo Hatton as her tag-along friend Bet.
The Oliver Twist story will, of course, always centre on the raw, brash humour and chill factor of Fagin’s den of thieves and here the splendid Steve Smith once again delivers a master-class in rich characterisation, investing the wily old villain with a heady mix of comedy and pathos. His young gang members respond well, despite looking a little too clean-cut for their back-alley lifestyle.
This hardly applies to the fearsome nastiness embodied in Chris Cortopassi’s compelling Bill Sikes, a well-judged essay in cold ruthlessness, and there are fun elements in Benjamin Wellicome’s undertaker and John Fenner’s Mr Bumble.
The austerity of the locations is significantly captured in Richard Moore’s set design which works wonders on a limited stage, and Matt Flint’s musical direction does full justice to those evergreen songs.
With a little more refinement along the way, this will be a worthy tribute to Bart’s brilliant adaptation. Even Oliver himself could hardly ask for more.