Jigsaw Stage Productions Reviews Home Back “Oliver !” The Musical 2018

Review by Leo Hughes
in the Herald series newspaper.

Oliver! by Jigsaw Stage Productions,
at Cornerstone, Didcot, April 26 - 28  2018

'NEVER work with children or animals' was WC Fields’ famous advice. Jigsaw Stage Productions, under the confident direction of Gill Morgan, have taken on both those challenges with their current offering, 'Oliver!', and emerged with colours flying high. With nine performances to cover, Ms Morgan has assembled two children’s casts, each 17 strong, to do duty as orphans and Fagin’s gang, and the cast I saw at The Beacon in Wantage on April 6 gave a strong account of favourites 'Food, Glorious Food' and 'Consider Yourself (At Home)'.

Thomas Hulme in the title rôle managed to carry the sentimental 'Where Is Love' to the back of the auditorium despite a temporary microphone failure, and was rewarded with very warm and well-deserved applause.

Among the grown-ups, Karen Brind as Widow Comey has to be singled out for her perfectly-timed rendition of 'I Shall Scream', and Helena Kerswell for her powerful performance of the show’s great torch song 'As Long As He Needs Me'. Chris Palmer is a menacing Bill Sykes, and his dog (sadly uncredited in the programme) behaved himself perfectly. Strong support is offered by Charlie East and Chris Jones as the horrible Sowerberrys, and Paul Bowers as the bumbling Bumble.

Much of the success of Lionel Bart’s conversion of Charles Dickens’ sinister novel into a comic musical is due to Bart’s transformation of Fagin from an evil avaricious manipulator of wayward young boys into a benevolent old gentleman with a taste for antiquarian jewellery and exotic handkerchiefs.

Edmund Bennett captured the part splendidly, and his 'Pick A Pocket Or Two' and 'Reviewing The Situation' were stand-out performances. Nimble footwork makes his a very lively presentation of the part, and leads me to a second mention here for Karen Brind, for her direction of the choreography.

A second mention is due too to Chris Jones for her work as wardrobe mistress: there’s a fine array of tall hats! Musical direction is by Jevan Johnson Booth on synthesiser, leading a band comprising Dave Harvey on bass, Julian Bown on drums, Anton Gwilt on second keyboard, and Joanne Paterson-Neild switching deftly between assorted reeds and woodwinds. Ms Booth’s brisk approach contributes significantly to the pacing of the production: never a dull moment.

It’s sad to think that imminent bankruptcy forced Lionel Bart to sell his rights to 'Oliver!' for £350 (to Max Bygraves, who subsequently sold them on for £250,000).

This is a show that will survive as long as there are musicals being performed, and Jigsaw have done it credit. Catch it at The Cornerstone Didcot next week between April 26 and 28. Oh, and those children and animals … my favourite moment was provided by the cat! WC Fields was right.

Leo Hughes

Review by Mike Lord  
Oxfordshire Drama Reviews.

Oliver! by Jigsaw Stage Productions,
at The Wantage, Beacon, April 4-7 2018

Lionel Bart's musical version of Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist premiered in London's West End in 1960 and has been drawing large and enthusiastic audiences ever since.

When I spoke to director Gill Morgan ten days before the opening night, she described it as containing 'music that everyone knows' and 'a toe-tapping show'. If this production was meant as a crowd-pleaser, then the verdict comes in two words: mission accomplished. The crowd on the evening I attended was indeed well pleased.

Jigsaw Stage Productions had two teams of children, who alternated between performances. On the Saturday night I was there, Team 1 was on stage. Opening a show is never an easy task, but the orphans made a generally confident start with their rendition of Food Glorious Food. A slight quibble in an otherwise solid first number – the first word of several lines was lost – a result of nerves, I'd say.

The production took off for me with the duet between Mr Bumble and Widow Corney (Paul Bowers and Karen Brind), I Shall Scream!, where the beadle, starved of physical affection, attempts to plight his troth to the amply-resourced widow. We saw some lovely comic moments from both performers.

We also had some nice characterisation from Mr Sowerberry the undertaker (Charlie East) and Mrs Sowerberry (Chris Jones) who take in Oliver as an apprentice and treat him appallingly, but the musical number that ends the scene (That's Your Funeral) was a little lacking in energy for my taste. A bit more oomph was needed.

The stage then emptied leaving Oliver (Thomas Hulme) alone to sing Where Is Love? I was impressed by the performance of this young actor, who brought the requisite pathos to the part. The other main children's part, of course, is the Artful Dodger and Felix Potter made a strong start in the role with his rendition of Consider Yourself. Praise too to Karen Brind for choreographing the dance routine that followed (and for many other numbers in the show, particularly Who Will Buy?) as well as to her dancers.

Anything? Fagin (Edmund Bennett) surrounded by his adoring gang of thieves and hangers-on

Edmund Bennett clearly relished his role as Fagin and gave us a rogue with a warm, avuncular affection for his gang of thieves. Pick a Pocket or Two came over well as a parlour game for the benefit of the newly arrived Oliver, and his final song Reviewing the Situation saw Edmund doing justice to what is a difficult song to perform, both in technical terms and comic interpretation.

Fagin lives in fear of Bill Sikes, and hardly surprising when played as a brutal, irredeemable thug by Chris Palmer. There is nothing good to be said about the character of Sikes: he is a criminal, he beats his wife, is possessed of a demonic malevolence, and glories in the fear that the mere mention of his name brings to others. None of the above was the case with Chris, of course, who brought a brooding physicality to the role and made us believe he was truly a nasty bit of work. I particularly enjoyed his performance of the song My Name!

For me, the three best numbers in Jigsaw's production were It's a Fine Life, Oom-pah-pah and As Long as He Needs Me. Not by coincidence did they all include Helena Kerswell playing Nancy, who gave a truly fantastic musical performance (my goodness, that gal can sing...and act the songs!). It's a Fine Life lifted the show to a higher level and As Long as He Needs Me was given the sympathy and gusto so vital to a torch song such as this. It drew loud cheers from the audience and deservedly so.

Congratulations are due to the other members of the cast, young and old, all of whom contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable performance of a well known and well-loved show, into which director Gill Morgan injected a dose of freshness. On a practical note, the cast doubled up as stage hands, shifting scenery and props as soon as they had stepped off stage (no black-clad stage ninjas for Jigsaw). The arrangement worked well with no hiccups that this reviewer could see.

A final pat on the back goes to musical director Jevan Johnson Booth and other members of the band who gave a professional sound to an amateur production.

Mike Lord