Possibly their last show of 2008 so the Whingers play it safe: a known, loved, trusted musical with hummable tunes; in the West End; with reserved seating.
Yes, last Monday* the Whingers eagerly took their numbered seats at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to enjoy their favourite British musical. This show has more catchy, hummable songs than any other this sceptred isle has ever produced.
What sensible person would not grin from ear to ear on hearing the jolly refrain:
Andrew Lloyd Webber: eat your heart out. And all your other vital organs while you’re at it. Oliver! is proof that Lionel Bart was the closest thing to musical theatre genius that this country has seen. What could possibly go wrong?
The trouble is this production of Oliver! was famously cast and promoted through yet another TV talent show, I’d Do Anything which threw up three Olivers and a Nancy.
So not only are there an awful lot of kiddie-winks in the show (134 in total, although thankfully not all on the same night) but also in the audience.
And the casting of Jodie Prenger via the telly (which Andrew famously doesn’t do) has attracted – now how do we put this politely and without seeming like the terrible, terrible snobs that we are – the kind of people who don’t normally go to the theatre.
Now, many of you out there will be will thinking that attracting people who don’t normally go to the theatre is a good thing. But you weren’t there last Monday night, were you? As the Whingers took their seats Phil whispered (note to people who don’t normally go to the theatre: note the word “whisper“, not “talk full volume like you would at home”), “I’m going to have to be very brave”.
And so it was, amidst all the people who don’t normally go to the theatre that the Whingers sat trying to be very patient, attempting to block out all the crying, chatting, back-of-seat banging, sweet unwrapping, cross-row Malteser distribution and more coughing than a TB ward.
The trouble is that the people who don’t normally go to the theatre took a rather literal interpretation of Mr Bart’s thoughtless imperative “Consider yourself at home” and behaved as though they’re still at home sitting in front of the telly. After Prenger’s big solo number the woman next to Andrew started texting her friends to tell them all about it.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Andrew adopted his signature look of benign resignation but Phil was hissing “shhhhh” within 30 seconds. But even Phil’s venomous stares could not silence the three year old child who started to cry the moment the band struck up with the scary opening music. And why did the curtain go up before the house lights went down?** If ever there was an audience that required a lesson in good manners and a collective shusshing, this was it. There was, of course, the announcement about turning off mobiles and not taking photographs (clearly copyright being far more important than allowing the audience to enjoy itself in relative peace).
Why was there no instruction to shut the f*** up, take any screaming f***ing brats home (it’s not a panto) and unwrap your f***ing sweeties now?
Anyway, enough about people who don’t normally go to the theatre.
What of the people who go to the theatre far more often than is normal?
Well, if we must review the show rather than the audience, these would be our observations:
- When it comes to children singing, less really is more. Obviously “zero children” would be the Whingers’ preference but that’s clearly not practical in this show. But it would be only slightly less practical than having more children than is customary, thus rendering the words of “Food, Glorious, Food” inaudible (although this did not prevent the people who don’t normally go to the theatre from being inspired to gorge themselves anew on the noisiest confectionery known to man.
- The sound balance is completely off. We could hardly make out any of the lyrics. This is important – it’s a musical – and must be rectified.
- There’s something already rather tired about this production – perhaps because it’s a revival of the 1994 Sam Mendes revival. Genius wunderkind turned loose cannon Rupert Goold has been brought into co-direct alongside choreographer Matthew Bourne but one wonders whether this is really worthy of his attention.
- Andrew felt it only really took off from “Consider Yourself” but Phil was still waiting for it to lift off by the time the curtain came down. Ironically there seemed to be far too much happening on stage – almost as much as in the audience. The lyric “consider yourself part of the family” struck a sinister chord with Phil who by this point was so tense you could have cracked a seasonal brazil nut between his shoulder blades.
- Rowan Atkinson is very funny as Fagin – even his first word -“What?” – gets a laugh. There is some very funny opera glasses business (seemingly inspired by Dame Edna) as he surveys the different levels of the auditorium. It’s a shame he can’t sing, but you can’t have everything in life, can you?
- Talking of life, the reprise of “It’s A Fine Life” was a complete shambles but then there was something strangely rushed about all of the songs – as though tempo might be a substitute for energy. Or possibly to ensure that the show was over by 10pm so the 134 children could go to bed. But whatever the reason, it’s a disaster. Bart’s delicious lyrics (already competing with the over-amped orchestra) get thrown away in the dash to complete the songs.
- One supposes that the big question on the lips of people who care about such things is “What about Jodie Prenger?” Andrew has been affecting complete disinterest in the matter having been barking up the wrong tree from the start of the contest. Phil insists that Prenger has been his Nancy of choice from the start (if not that of Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh). Unfortunately she seemed to be losing her voice the night the Whingers saw it, but she still sang well, if not making a huge impression on the show. Indeed, some of her natural personality seems to have been knocked out of her. Perhaps it was illness, perhaps it was the trauma of having spent a week in Les Miserables or perhaps this was acting. It was impossible to tell.
- Burn Gorman (Mr Guppy from Bleak House and Owen Harper in Torchwood) is fine as Bill Sikes but principally serves to remind us just how little anybody gets to do in Oliver! He doesn’t even get to do much with his dog, handing it over to a wrangler when he comes on stage and taking it back when he leaves.
- Where was Rosemary Leach? She’s on the posters but not in the programme and her part is now being played by Louise Gold. The Whingers were very disappointed and considered asking for their money back.
- On the plus side, it was lovely to see WEW fave Myra Sands in the chorus. My, but that woman’s had a busy year what with Gigi, Funny Girl at Chichester and now this. Time to get this woman out of the West End chorus. We think she could be Nancy.
- For the record: we saw the Welsh Oliver Twist but we don’t know who the Artful Dodger was.
- There was on-stage vomiting during Oom-Pah-Pah which was rather thrown away.
- We had forgotten that the name of the inn is “The Three Cripples”**** but it was a timely reminder as the Whingers are currently looking for a name for their planned late night cabaret bar in the West End.
Frankly, we can’t remember being so disappointed in something. Never mind, Andrew has tickets to see David Tennant in Hamlet in a few days’ time so that will make up for it.
* Yes. It has taken eight days to get round to writing it up. That’s how dispirited we are by the whole thing.
** Didn’t Oliver! used to have an overture? Not any more.
*** This is a preview. But the tickets are the same price as they will be after the show opens on 14th January.
**** Trivia. Q: Who plays the singer at The Three Cripples in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Oliver Twist?