The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group returns with Lionel Bart’s much-loved and musical OLIVER! to give it a new and exciting twist in the lead up to the 30-year anniversary of EUSOG’s first production. One of the most exciting twists here is the bold decision to have Fagin – ‘receiver of stolen goods’ and leader and exploiter of a gang of juvenile pickpockets – played by a woman. That, by the way, also goes for the Artful Dodger!

Of course, in this day and age artistic licence is being taken to new heights (or lows, depending on ones outlook). In a time were we have the first female Dr. Who and the Artful Dodger is played by a black boy (just watch the BBC drama DICKENSIAN, currently repeated on Drama) anything seems to go, though whether it works or not is of course debatable.

Charles Dicken’s iconic tale of Oliver Twist, the unfortunate orphan who, in Victorian London, was born in a workhouse before falling into the wrong hands, only to be rescued by the kindly Mr. Brownlow – is among the author’s most successful novels. Despite the book’s dark undertones, social criticisms and descriptions of the squalid conditions London’s poor had to live in it didn’t stop writer and composer to come up with the genius idea of turning this sordid tale of Victorian cruelty and murder into a multi-award winning stage musical, later to be made into an even more successful 1968 musical film starring Mark Lester in the title role, Jack Wild as the Dodger and the incomparable Ron Moody as Fagin. And yes, despite its huge on-going success and big-budget production values the film doesn’t bring the true horror of 19th century London’s dark underbelly across. For this, you should watch director David Lean’s 1948 masterpiece, with Robert Newton as one of the vilest ‘Bill Sykes’ ever to appear on the silver screen.

EUSOG have attempted to re-create the squalid slum-like conditions of that era and it must be said with convincing results (although the clothes on the washing line are perhaps a shade too white for ghetto in London’s Saffron Hill). The costumes – bearing in mind that this is a student production on a shoestring budget – consist of an uneven mish-mash made up of proper Victorian clobber, mixed with items that look too modern and like leftover rags from last year’s High Street jumble sale (costume designer, please take note!). If there are two truly outstanding factors which make this production worthwhile it is the excellent singing and the equally excellent orchestra – in particular Chloe Simpson (‘Widow Corney’), Grace Dickson (‘Nancy’) and Kirsten Millar (‘Charlotte’) whose voices are simply magnificent and worthy of any professional production – one of the highlights is a superb rendition of Who Will Buy… These young ladies are just as capable of speaking with convincing Cockney accents as is Ashleigh More, whose portrayal of Fagin’s cheeky and jolly sidekick ‘Artful Dodger’ is spot-on! Kathryn Salmond takes on the courageous role of playing Fagin – a role that seems simple to play as he is such a distinctive character but in fact he’s rather difficult to play as there are so many nuances to him – not to mention the Yiddish East End accent. Surprisingly, Kathryn pulls it off in her own way, looking more like NY punk-rock chanteuse Patti Smith than the stereotypical Fagin, and her rendition of the hilarious ‘Reviewing the Situation’ – one of the musical’s signature songs – is inspiring to say the least.

On the male front, a big round of applause must go to Joe Kirkpatrick (‘Noah Claypole’) whose Cockney accent is so utterly convincing you’d never believe he hails from Dumfries! Granted, unless you were born under the Bow Bells a Cockney accent is no mean feat for any performer but Joe seems to have the gift of the gab. Saul Garett makes for a worthy (and rather hunky) ‘Bill Sykes’ with an excellent singing voice though he could upgrade the malice in his voice and still get away with it. The same can be said for Richard Blaquiére (‘Mr. Bumble’), mind you, his ‘Mr. Bumble’ is a better singer than talker.
Last but not least, we now get to the star of the show – Oliver Twist. Unfortunately this turns out to be somewhat of a let-down, for the actor chosen to portray him is 19- year old Yann Davies, a lad who is also quite tall. And therein lies the problem for the whole essence of Oliver Twist is that he is this waif-like, malnourished and timid boy that you just want to protect from the evils of this world. How can a 19-year old portray such a boy? I don’t point the finger of blame at Yann, who tries his best to be what he simply cannot be, but on the casting director who should have realized that casting the part of Oliver (the main part as it stands) with someone who simply looks too grown up doesn’t work – amateur production or not. This much is especially true for the climactic showdown between Sykes and Oliver, with both wrestling on a rooftop. What an anti-climax to what should have been one of the tensest scenes! Oliver wouldn’t stand a chance to wrestle with someone like Sykes for more than three seconds yet here, Oliver came out trumps. Still, this is the personal opinion of yours truly, others may look at it differently. Either way it’s worth checking out the production and I promise that you too will be bowled over by the terrific singing!

OLIVER! runs until Dec 2nd at the Pleasance Theatre.
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