The characters of Oliver, Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sikes, Mr Bumble and the Artful Dodger, made famous by the actors from the film, make it hard for societies to live up to the high expectations of an audience who will undoubtedly be thinking of the likes of Ron Moody and Oliver Reed.
Billericay Operatic Society faced these challenges head on with some excellent and some interesting casting choices.
Before talking about the adult cast, I want to start by congratulating the cast of children. I saw the 'Westends' and 'Twisters' groups of children, which included Jack Beazley and Hamish Baumber as Dodger and Oliver respectively, and was mightily impressed with them all.
To have thirty children on the small stage area at the Brentwood Theatre was a brave decision, but one that paid off as it gave the scenes in Fagin's den an excellent atmosphere. The sound of the 30 voices was very impressive, it can't have been easy for Andy Prideaux as Musical Director to get the sound right with that amount of children. I must also congratulate Jane Granby as the choreographer because the movements of the large group of children, although simple, were very effective.
'Be Back Soon' was a specific favourite number of mine in the show. The singing and movements across the stage and scenery were excellent.
Talking specifically now of the children who played Oliver and Dodger. The casting of Jack and Hamish together was visually brilliant and very reminiscent of the actors from the film. Blonde and innocent looking for Oliver; dark haired, taller and more confident for Dodger. However the praise does not stop there. Both children played the roles brilliantly. Hamish played Oliver with such a degree of believability, I can only assume he has acted on stage before. His singing was beautiful and he held the audience, although losing his way briefly in 'Where is Love?', he expertly got it back and completed the song, something some adults would find difficult. Jack played the role of Dodger with a degree of quiet confidence. He was less animated and child-like than the film version of the character, playing the role more like the Artful Dodger of the original Dickens text - a child who acts like an adult - and was excellent.
As a side note, a friend of mine attended the show on the previous evening and saw the 'Broadway' and 'Twisters' children with Harrison Hall and Cameron Galvin as Dodger and Oliver. So although I am not able to say for myself how that group of children performed, I can say what has been reported to me.
She stated that the children were "very impressive, moving and singing as one". She also stated that Harrison as Dodger was "excellent" and "very reminiscent of Jack Wild", the actor from the film version and that Cameron's voice was "angelic"!
Moving on to the adult cast, as mentioned there some excellent and some interesting casting choices.
Bob Southgate was an incredible Mr Bumble, playing the role with power and a degree of campness that was incredibly entertaining. Gail Carpenter played Widow Corney / Mrs Bumble with an equal amount of coyness and aggressiveness. The two were excellent on stage together and their interactions were incredibly believable, as one would expect from the two seasoned actors.
The Sowerberry's were played by Mark Clements and Annabel Lowman and were equally good together on stage, this along with their contrasting builds made for an excellent scene. Mark's creeping Mr Sowerberry played well against Annabel's strong and aggressive Mrs Sowerberry, creating excellent comedic moments. The song 'That's Your Funeral' being a particular highlight for me.
Aiding Mark and Annabel in this scene were two youngsters whom I have not seen before, Tia Worboys as Charlotte Sowerberry and Harry Reeves as Noah Claypole. Both youngsters played their respective roles excellently.
We then finally met Fagin, as portrayed by Wayne Carpenter. Wayne was undoubtedly the best choice for the role out of the male cast members, being the seasoned performer he is with an excellent voice, however visually it did not feel quite right. For me, Fagin is tall, lithe and for the most part jovial, because of the way Ron Moody played the character. Wayne, although using some of the intonation and movements made famous by Moody, played the role with a darker feel, less of a caricature in a way.
Nancy was played by Sian Hopwood powerfully and with emotion. The occasional phrase sounded more Australian than London, but this didn't detract overly from her performance. Her version of 'As Long As He Needs Me' in the second act was captivating. She was aided in her escapades by Anna Green as Bet, who also performed well.
In the second act we met Bill Sikes (or Sykes as it printed in the programme), played by Andy Prideaux. Andy is also listed as the Musical Director, which makes me wonder how he managed to do both roles and if he was conducting the band when not on stage. He played Bill with a degree of menace, essential for the role, growling and barking his lines, threatening supporting cast and eventually killing Nancy with incredibly realistic sounds!
The named characters were completed by Adam Popplewell as Mr Brownlow, Fiona Whittaker as Mrs Bedwin, Jon Keeler as Dr Grimwig and Freda Timms as Old Sally. Adam played Mr Brownlow very straight which was an excellent contrast to the incompetence of the bumbling Doctor and later, the loud brashness of Mr and Mrs Bumble. A high point for me was the reprise of 'Where is Love?' when Hamish as Oliver and Fiona as Mrs Bedwin sang together, which was beautiful.
At this point I would also like to mention the Street Sellers, who did an excellent job of their song 'Who Will Buy?', especially the young lady who opened the number as the rose seller.
The rest of the adult chorus were in various street scenes, as well as the songs 'Consider Yourself', 'Oom-Pah-Pah' and the second part of 'Who Will Buy?', which was a particular high point of the show for me.
Overall, I enjoyed this performance of Oliver. It is not the best show I have seen by Billericay Operatic Society as in the past I have seen them tackle, what I consider to be, much more challenging shows.
There was no indication as to any future shows for the group in the programme, so I will wait with interest to see the direction they now go.