Thursday, May 25, 2006


"If you don't mind noise with no silence
It's a fine life, it's a fine life
If you don't mind songs with domestic violence
It's a fine life, it's a fine life"

Those aren't the lyrics from "It's a Fine Life", one of the many memorable songs from Lionel Bart's Oliver!, but I've always thought they should be. There's a strange morphing that happens at some point in the musical of Charles Dickens famous novel Oliver Twist, and all of a sudden the life of a cheeky bunch of Victorian-era pickpockets isn't quite as fun as it was during "Consider Yourself".

I watched Oliver! the movie musical as a child, and was amused by its colour and movement. But I always wondered why - when the story was dealing with dark topics like child abuse and slavery, domestic violence, robbery and murder - characters would break into a thigh-slapping number about oom-pah-pahing or having a "fine life". It just seemed to jar with me. And I was reminded of that watching Oliver! at the Brisbane Arts Theatre. If you can get past the inconsistencies (which only ever seem to be my problem), it's a good nostalgic watch.

The Brisbane Arts Theatre and directors Rodney Wolff and Susan Gillingham have obviously made a decision to put bums on seats with a faithful reproduction of the movie for stage - complete with live 12-piece orchestra. The set (Una Hollingworth) and costumes (Sandra Hines) give the impression of a pop-up book of 1830s London - filled with under-nourished yet cherubic children, nasty workhouses masters, heartless funeral parlour owners, prostitutes with hearts of gold and their murderous boyfriends.

The child roles in this production are all double cast; but on opening night the star of the show for me was the young lad playing the Artful Dodger, whose energy seemed to infect his fellow actor playing Oliver, and boost his performance. Together they shined. Catherine Collings was a warm but spirited Nancy, and had the best singing voice in the cast. John Mulvihill played a very slithery Fagin - a few weeks into the run and I'm sure he'll be rivalling Sir Alex Guinness, who played the role in the 1948 David Lean film.

I felt the second half of the show let it down; the climax of the story felt rushed and I found its execution onstage confusing. Despite doggedly faithful adaptation, the directors have chosen to not use the movie ending, which I actually think would have suited the light tone of this production better. There were also some mystifying bits of choreography during some of the songs; but this is a minor quibble as the majority of the music, singing and dancing was very professional.

I realise I haven't actually mentioned the plot of Oliver! in this review; but then I guess if you don't know it, you've probably been living in a cave since the mid-1800s. Even so, this production is a good chance to relive those childhood memories and dreams of "Food! Glorious Food!"

Oliver! by Lionel Bart.
Brisbane Arts Theatre
Until Saturday, June 24, 2006
Thurs-Sat @ 8pm; Sat & Sun @ 2pm
Book on 3369 2344


Anonymous said...

Hi Natalie,

Enjoying the theatre reviews. Good to have something outside of to read.

Mr Smithers

Anonymous said...

What silly criticisms! If you knew anything about the script - as a decent reviewer should - then you would know that the play and the movie diverge in plot, especially at the end. How the play finishes is not something a producer decides out of his or her own head!

Anonymous said...

My mother played Nancy!

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