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A Dickens of an Oliver

PUBLISHED: 18:09 09 July 2008 | UPDATED: 17:21 16 August 2010

POWERFUL: Jordan Flowers as Oliver and Noah Claypole.

POWERFUL: Jordan Flowers as Oliver and Noah Claypole.

THE dark heart of Charles Dickens classic novel was lovingly restored in Erith Playhouse s sell-out production of Oliver! last week, writes Mark Campbell.

THE dark heart of Charles Dickens' classic novel was lovingly restored in Erith Playhouse's sell-out production of Oliver! last week, writes Mark Campbell.

Too many versions emphasise the jolly music hall songs while glossing over the grimmer aspect of the story - child poverty, prostitution, criminality and the death of Nancy.

Jean Franks' slickly produced show rattled along in fine style and was easily the best (and shortest) Oliver! I have yet seen.

Despite the title, Lionel Bart's musical is really more concerned with the Jewish child trafficker Fagin.

Here Richard Self excelled himself in a brilliantly charismatic performance that eschewed the traditional fake-nosed stereotype to present a fully rounded figure who was both appealing and repugnant, yet always watchable.

As his partner-in-crime Bill Sykes, Steve Hunt was a malevolent presence throughout - his bloodstained shirt and gravelly voice the perfect counterpart to Fagin's more Gandalf-like demeanour.

It was perhaps hard to see why Nancy (Jenny Tallowin Snee) chose to stay with him, considering he had no redeeming features, but this is clearly a problem with the script rather than the acting.

As Nancy, Tallowin Snee gave a full-blooded rendition of As Long As He Needs Me, and in her bright red dress she was the centrepiece of the stage. As her sister Bet, Kelly Randall was also superb.

Oliver was played by Jordan Flowers, with the Artful Dodger Daniel Bridle. Both were excellent, as were the other child actors who formed Fagin's under-age gang. (On alternate nights, Joseph Thompson-Oubari and Luke Higgins played both parts respectively.)

It's hard not to be moved by Where is Love? and Flowers sung it beautifully, especially the sustained final notes.

Musically, the most interesting songs are Who Will Buy?, with its plaintive harmonies, and Reviewing the Situation, a perkily hummable ditty that has Fagin questioning his own motivations.

Both were flawlessly performed, aided by exquisite violin accompaniment on the latter.

Andy Hall's musical direction was as jaunty as ever, and Michelle Pearl and Danielle Elisak's choreography came to the fore on the big ensemble numbers.

Judith Brace's cramped, claustrophobic set was authentically underlit by Peter Bennett with much of the action, especially in the climax, seen through a hazy blanket of fog.

Oliver! has rarely been so atmospherically staged.

l The next production at the Erith Playhouse will be Nightmare by Roger S Moss from 8-13 September. Tickets: 01322 350345.

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