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Published: 29 January 2009
Reviewing the situation

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

OLIVER! here isn’t all about Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, whatever the publicity gumpf and Tube posters might have you believe.

He cannot match Ron Moody’s unbeatable celluloid turn as the beady-eyed schemer, so he plays it more for laughs and less menace than Dickens originally prescribed. The slide into Mr Bean skits is a distraction which may prove unwanted for disciples of this contagious musical.
That said, when he is not goofing around with silly faces that owe more to the dross that was The Thin Blue Line than the shrewdness of Blackadder, Atkinson is wise enough to let his precocious child gang pickpocket the show.
It only comes alive when The Artful Dodger (Ross McCormack, 10/10 for this talented 13-year-old) heralds the start of a rendition of Consider Yourself to make you tremble, introducing his light-fingered chums as the streets and bridges of London unfurl in a majestic playground of a set.
It is an awesome ­spectacle, perhaps the most striking you will see in the West End right now, and there is hardly a moment for breath ­thereafter.
Sadly for Harry Stott, his bewildered Oliver Twist becomes almost a sideshow to a frantic mash of petticoat twirls, apples-and-pears cockney banter and the ­blustery blizzard of talent show winner Jodie Prenger doing her ­darndest as Nancy.
She has two breathy goes at As Long As He Needs Me, an ode to her misplaced loyalty in super-villain Bill Sikes.
Let’s just hope the millions that were hooked on the Saturday night show that got her here will be rewarded for their phone votes and get to see her on stage – the pricey pre-sale tickets suggest that might not be the case.
In the end the winding story of where Oliver comes from and where he ends up is unsurprisingly wrapped up at a speed to make scholars of Dickens scowl. But there is no denying that Lionel Bart created a masterpiece with Oliver!, lyrically audacious and musically infectious.
And in moments when the cast seem overwhelmed and singing shadows of the famous film and previous productions, the ingenuity of the show, its sheer feel-good chutzpah gets them through.
Whoever is in the key roles, however its staged, revisiting this well-worn path to alehouses, where beer is sloshed down from tin cups and Nancy straddles the bar while leading a sing-a-long round of Oom-Pah-Pah, is a priceless formula.
The actors will always give it their best but the magic is in the songs.
Booking until July 2009

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