From the packed auditorium, to the at times rather crowded stage, not to mention the sight of the man whose name is in lights above the main entrance, there was no sign of a recession in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on Saturday.
I was going to nominate whoever persuaded Rowan Atkinson to play Fagin for a knighthood, but I see Cameron Mackintosh already has that honour. From Fagin’s very first line of one syllable, the audience warmed to him with gusto; or as much as it is possible to warm to a crazed, creepy uncle type who teaches young boys to steal, and has no concept of soap.
Yet for all that, he rightfully received the biggest laughs and the longest applause, “Reviewing the Situation” being the night’s highlight. For someone known mainly for only two characters, there was a slight trepidation that Atkinson would slip into one of them; but although “Teddy” had a small cameo, I never once thought of Mr Bean or Blackadder.
Halfway through “Food, Glorious Food”, it was obvious that this production would be as delectable as the “hot sausage and mustard”; and from Harry Stott’s first solo in “Where Is Love”, the audience took him to their hearts as their tousle-haired orphan. The cast of over 30 young boys were wonderful, and although poor Oliver is condemned to be perpetually upstaged by the Artful Dodger, even the latter could not compete with a little lad called Nipper, played by nine-year-old Daniel Huttlestone. This angelic, blond-haired, blue-eyed little nipper turned out to be the cheekiest of Fagin’s urchins, pilfering from, imitating, and insulting his elderly mentor. It’s always the one you least suspect, isn’t it?
Lionel Bart’s memorably addictive soundtrack is given a new lease on life thanks to modern sound equipment. “Consider Yourself” takes the term “all-singing, all-dancing” to a whole new level; I didn’t want it to end, it was glorious. This was due in no small part to Eric Dibb-Fuller’s mischievous turn as the sneaky, swaggering, affable Dodger.
Jodie Prenger made for a delightfully sexy, feisty, yet vulnerable Nancy. From the boisterous exuberance of “Oom-Pah-Pah” to the softly defiant “As Long As He Needs Me”, her powerful voice delivered both cockney character and raw fervour. I will have to read the novel to try to discover how she came to be the preferred company of Burn Gorman’s dark and menacing Bill Sikes.
Certain scenes of Dickens’ tale are played out on a clever, elevating two-tier system, allowing us to see what is happening above ground, as well as what is happening below in Fagin’s underground lair.
Given the enthusiastic performances and unforgettable songs, I hope the cast and crew will consider themselves at home at the Theatre Royal for a long time to come. (Rowan Atkinson will star as Fagin until 18 July 2009.)