A Dickens of a hit for ‘Oliver!’

The principal players in the St Mary's Parich Church AODS production of Oliver!
The principal players in the St Mary's Parich Church AODS production of Oliver!

Review: “Oliver!”, by Clitheroe Parish Church AODS, St Mary’s Centre, Clitheroe, until Saturday.

A brilliant production of the smash-hit musical “Oliver!” is packing them in at St Mary’s Centre this week – and deservedly so.

Lionel Bart’s masterpiece is the greatest British post-war musical – no “probably” or “possibly” about it – and it’s wonderful to see the hugely talented members of Clitheroe Parish Church Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society throw themselves into it with such infectious enthusiasm.

Every song is a hit, every dance routine a belter, and every principal is a strong one as the story takes us back to the cruelty, squalor, grim humour and indomitable human spirit of Dickens’ 19th century London.

At the centre of it all, playing the hapless Oliver Twist, is Alistair Black, a Pendle Primary School pupil who is small in stature but big on talent. It’s been a big leap from school productions to the adult stage, but Alistair looks and sounds just right for this title role, with his small but clear voice and his wide-eyed vulnerability shining through.

Thankfully, director David Hulme has stayed true to the original and keeps the production going at a fast pace with no wasted seconds or clunky scene changes. It was an unusual opening when the curtains parted on the adult chorus in a frozen position with staring eyes and an eerie “aa-aa-ah” chorus – very Jekyll and Hyde-ish - but before long we were into “Food, Glorious Food” with the workhouse boys in the first rollicking routine.

These lads, who later become Fagin’s band of pickpockets, are an absolute boon to this production; none of them too old and all of them happy in their roles. They are a grand bunch of singers, too, with the boost of a few strategically allocated personal microphones.

Myles Sutcliffe, already a seasoned young performer, relishes his role as The Artful Dodger, full of confidence in every scene and leading the chorus in a rousing “Consider Yourself” as if he owns the place.

Along the adult principals there isn’t a single weak link. Richard Hubbard, as Fagin, has the physicality of the scuttling crook off to perfection and makes him a sympathetic rogue, if not entirely a loveable one.

Maria Masterman is perfect as ill-fated Nancy, the tart with a heart who defies her brutal lover, and her big emotional number “As Long As He Needs Me” couldn’t be bettered.

Violent thug Bill Sykes is skilfully and believably delivered by the growling Damian Marsh, who enjoyed some well-meaning panto-style boos while taking his bow.

Workhouse beadle Mr Bumble, a role forever associated with Harry Secombe, becomes a flustered comic Yorkshireman with some fine vocal touches in Paul Heyes’s portrayal, in an entertaining double act with Lesley Haworth as Mrs Corney, the widow he woos and lives to regret it.

Bob Cleeve and Geralyn Lambert add some splendid lugubrious humour, and some knockabout stuff, as the ghastly pale-faced undertakers Mr and Mrs Sowerberry.

Milly Wardle, an excellent dancer, does a light-footed turn as Nancy’s best friend Bet, and there are well-interpreted support roles from Kim Croydon as the kind-hearted Mr Brownlow, Kane Taylor as the undertakers’ bullying assistant Claypole, Amy Prendergast as Charlotte, Jean Croft as Mrs Bedwin and Trevor Lord as Dr Grimwig.

The orchestra in too many amateur shows drowns the players, but Chris Andrews’ musicians are never overpowering in this show, and one particular musical gem deserving special mention is the street vendors’ song “Who Will Buy”, in which four superb voices from the chorus combine in well balanced harmony.

The adult chorus has a great time on a somewhat crowded stage, and is obviously confident in every move, testament to choreographer Lindsay Pollard’s work with them.

Will this show scoop five NODA awards as last year’s “Jekyll and Hyde” did? Well, “Oliver!” is not as edgy or risk-taking as that production, but it’s much more than a stock seat-filler and deserves some recognition when the silverware is dished out next year.

Eric Beardsworth

The principal players in the St Mary’s Parich Church AODS production of Oliver!