`Half the people in Britain have either seen it or been in it`.

So said The Telegraph, when Cameron Mackintosh revived Oliver! at the Palladium in 1994. Why, when thousands of am-dram groups and schools have danced and sung their way through it, have the Hampstead Players not done Oliver! before?

Oliver! with shows like West Side Story and Kiss me Kate, is one of a handful of great musicals deriving from great originals. Dickens`s Oliver Twist, with its vivid characters - Nancy, Sikes, Fagin and the rest - and with one of the most famous lines in all literature - Oliver`s `Please, sir, I want some more` - has been a national institution since the 1830s. Queen Victoria read and enjoyed it, and Dickens himself featured the death of Nancy in his own dramatic readings, to the horrified delight of the crowds who flocked to hear him. David Lean`s film of 1948, with Alec Guinness`s villainous Fagin, reinforced its popularity with modern audiences.

At first, there was a lot of opposition to the idea of turning this great classic into a musical. It was rejected by no less than twelve theatres on the grounds that it wouldn`t be `box office`. And Lionel Begleiter, a musically untutored, young Jewish Communist from Whitechapel, seemed an unlikely author/composer. After abortive careers as an art student, an airman, a printer and a scene-painter - and even a name-change (which occurred to him one day when he was passing Bart`s Hospital) - he had only just begun to write for the stage: agit-prop pieces for the left-wing Unity Theatre.

But he achieved a success at Stratford East in 1959 with Fings Ain`t What They Used To Be. There followed a string of musicals, all with `social` themes and sympathetically treated low-life characters, which were a natural marriage between his political convictions and his innate, albeit uneducated, musical genius. At one time, Oliver!, Lock up your Daughters and Blitz! were all playing simultaneously in the West End. Songs for Tommy Steele, Anthony Newley and Matt Monro brought numerous Ivor Novello awards and celebrity status, but it is Oliver! - the show of ten thousand school productions - for which he will always be remembered.
Lionel Bart`s Oliver! became as much a national institution as the original book ever was. He simplified and shortened the plot, cutting out many of the characters. Purists may object that such a dark and powerful book is inevitably trivialised by the transition into a musical but, lighter though it is, Oliver! retains much of the moral force of the original. And Bart`s own background gave him an empathy with the proletarian resourcefulness and wit of characters like Nancy and the Dodger which Dickens could not quite match.

Notoriously, Dickens used the character of Fagin to equate Jewishness with evil, a reflection of a prevailing anti-Semitism in Victorian society - though paradoxically, he did not understand the speech patterns sufficiently to make this a convincing Jewish portrait. Bart turns this all round; as a Jewish writer he is able to reclaim Fagin and to celebrate his Jewish virtues as well as his vices - his avarice maybe, but also his charisma, his humour, his self-awareness and his pathos. And Bart does not over-sentimentalise when it really matters; Nancy`s death is every bit as shocking as in the book, and Sikes is every bit as brutal, with a brutality that is reinforced by the uncompromising music.

It is in the music, of course, that Bart`s reworking of the story takes on an extra, unprecedented dimension. And we all know it so well: the rapturous `Food Glorious Food`, the high spirits of `Consider Yourself`, the yearning `As Long As He Needs Me`, `Where Is Love?`, so sentimental yet so moving, the music-hall chutzpah of `Oom-Pah-Pah`, and by contrast the beautifully composed street criers` music in `Who Will Buy`, `That`s Your Funeral`, with its macabre, Gilbertian humour, the quasi-operatic quartet in Act 2, like something from `The Force of Destiny`, `Reviewing the Situation`, with its echoes of Yiddish klezmer music - the list seems endless. There are 16 songs in all, full of memorable tunes. It is often said that the test of a good musical is to hear the audience humming the tunes as they come out. Oliver! (it has also been said) is one of the few musicals whose audiences are humming the tunes as they go in.

Programme Note © Bill Risebero, November 2002


Review from the Magazine of the Parish Church St. John-at-Hampstead

Prescience perhaps combined with fortune inspired the Hampstead Players and the Youth Theatre, in this strike-ridden and darkly menaced winter, to give us something to cheer. For Mark Young and Bill Risebero's production of Oliver! was a triumph. On the Saturday night, before a packed and lively audience Lionel Bart's famed musical exploded into life, and with the first sound from the orchestra [led with such zest by Joseph O'Brien] we were away on a journey of mixed nostalgia and delight in this new presentation. The chorus of the workhouse children led us straight into the beguiling story, and when Mr Bumble [in the somewhat surprising shape of Nicholas White] loomed like a large and multi-coloured thundercloud we were happily waiting to hear Oliver's immortal line.

How many Olivers have their been? Many, now grown tall with children of their own. But here in Sam Marriott we had a mint-new Oliver, playing and singing with such accomplishment that we lost our hearts to him, and were eager to follow his fortunes and to see him win through. This progress was presented with such skilful production, such mastery in staging and talent in playing that the two hours traffic of the stage passed at a musical gallop.

In a play such as this, with a cast of - if not thousands - at least a great many - young and let's say, not so young - it is impossible to give credit in every case by name. Let us say that a production of this kind can only succeed if everyone plays his or her part to the top of their bent - which they all did. If I mention a few of the performances out of the many, some of the moments that particularly moved me, you must remember that I was just one person in a crowded house, and everyone will have a particular memory that delights them.

I found Alex Stuart's Artful Dodger very persuasive and Consider Yourself sung and played with particular energy and elan. The Thieves Kitchen was a splendid representation, and Bill Risebero had transformed himself into a memorable Fagin of dark presence and a hint of pathos. Nancy, in the person of Jenny Caie played and sang with poignancy and a touch of the doom which finally overcomes her. I was much taken with Sowerberry's Establishment where the oily Mr Sowerberry and his dominating wife were given force by Stephen Tucker and Moragh Gee. In a different mood I enjoyed the plaintive song of the streetsellers [all of them], Who Will Buy?

It was good to have it made clear by Bishop Peter on the next day that this was not simply a 'feel-good' musical but a play wherein the characters - even Bill Sikes [a fearsome Ben McGregor] contained aspects of ourselves. Behind it all that extraordinary magician of the English novel, Charles Dickens, lurked with the idiosyncratic and sometimes dark view of the human race.

We had an enthralling story, wonderful costumes [courtesy Joan Barton and others], music to stir the blood, chorus and players who bound us all together in a web of enthusiasm, with the knowledge that in every aspect of this production tireless work had born good fruit.

Could we have Asked for More?

Assuredly, No.

Diana Raymond