Oliver! Review – Leeds Playhouse

Fagin’s Gang with Steve Furst (Fagin). Credit Alastair Muir

The story remains the same in Lionel Bart’s classic musical Oliver! which plays in-the-round at Leeds Playhouse as part of the theatre’s festive offering, alongside the Enormous Crocodile for younger audiences; the young orphan Oliver Twist escapes from the workhouse and poverty in search of his fortune in London but falls into dangerous company.

To say ‘in-the-round’ is to undersell the experience that Leeds Playhouse offers in its reconfigured Quarry Theatre, in a transformation led by Colin Richmond and the theatre’s in-house production team. The audience surrounds the main action, but it also spills around, behind and above us – this is as immersive as theatre comes without opting for the new immersive-style offered by non-traditional theatres (think Mamma Mia! The Party at the O2).

The company. Photo: Alastair Muir

While many (though not all) of those opt for gimmicks to sell the experience, Oliver! achieves it through the staging, James Brining’s exceptional direction, Lucy Hind’s choreography and strong performances throughout ensemble; it’s a production that does the simple things well and makes the difficult things look simple. And the production doesn’t shy away from the musical’s dark themes; poverty, child abuse, misogyny, domestic violence and violence against women are all dealt with sensitively so that it remains open and accessible to the many young audience members.

Within the company, Jenny Fitzpatrick provides a strong vocal performance and suggests a true affinity between Nancy and the children that have come into her life, while Steve Furst’s wily violin-playing Fagin is worth the admission price alone. With Bill Sikes (a menacing Chris Bennett) pilfering pearls and Fagin’s gang picking pockets, it seems entirely appropriate that Furst’s Fagin is scene-stealing.

The young leading roles are being shared by several young actors across the run. Tonight’s performance sees Nicholas Teixeira as Oliver and Felix Holt as the Artful Dodger, both delivering understated mature performances. The performances across the supporting young company, cast through an open call-out, are exceptional.

Frankie Hart (Bet) Jenny Fitzpatrick (Nancy) with Hughie Higginson (The Artful Doger) Fagin’s Gang in Oliver. Credit Alastair Muir

Brining’s direction provides a climatic scene in London Bridge that is full of tension and drama, with the staging truly coming into its own. Where the production falters it is mostly as a consequence of its source material; despite Brining’s attempts to inject some pace into the first half, there is a notable lag between the opening one-two of Food, Glorious Food and Oliver! and the moment Oliver arrives in London.

When he does arrive, the production takes off with Consider Yourself – and it’s in the large ensemble set pieces like this, featuring the entire cast, where Brining’s production truly shines with the songs, the choreography and the staging coming together to create a little festive magic.

Oliver! is at Leeds Playhouse until 27 January 2024

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