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What to say about … Oliver!

15th January 2009

"What the Dickens? Haven't seen Oliver yet?" you crow, as your pals clamber to see the West End revival of Oliver Twist. Of course, you haven't made it to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane yourself yet – never mind finishing the doorstep novel on which it's based. But with an artful dodge, you should be able to convince them otherwise.

First, a bit of backstory courtesy of the Times. Lionel Bart's Oliver! was a smash hit in the 60s, when it ran for six years and became Theatreland's longest-running musical. The show was revived for a successful spell with director Sam Mendes in the 90s; now that particular staging is back, with Cameron Mackintosh as producer, Rupert Goold as director and Matthew Bourne as choreographer. Reality TV competitions are hardly your thing, but you know that a trio of Olivers and a Nancy were cast for the production through the BBC show I'd Do Anything. However, these rising stars have been eclipsed by the return to the stage of Rowan Atkinson as Fagin – the devilish underworld figure who welcomes Oliver into his gang of knee-high thieves.

Dickens's novel, says the Guardian's Michael Billington, is full of "social anger and Gothic strangeness"; Bart's musical, however, is more interested in "thumping good tunes" and "beery cheer". The musical's plot is "largely a device for getting the numbers on".

And what numbers! Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself, Who Will Buy and Oom-Pah-Pah are all eminently hummable. "It's a travesty of Dickens," you announce, concealing the Telegraph's review. "It's absolutely fantastic showbiz." The best thing to do is just "settle down to wallow in a superbly melodic musical that presses all the emotional buttons while seeming especially apt and uplifting in hard times".

At this point, who could resist another Dickens gag? Cutting to the chase, you announce that you had "great expectations" for Atkinson and dissect his portrayal of Fagin, problematically portrayed as a beak-nosed Jew in both the illustrations for the Dickens novel and Alec Guinness's controversial performance in David Lean's film. Thanks to Mister Bean and Blackadder, Atkinson is best known as a comedian but he gives "at least as much menace as Jonathan Pryce and Robert Lindsay, who were superlative in Sam Mendes's revival" (the Times's four-star writeup). For Billington, who detected "paternalism and faint paedophilia" in the portrayal, "Atkinson's Fagin may be essentially comic but he endows the character with a camply sinister edge". In appearance, "Mister Mean" (as the Sun dubs him) is "an infinitely creepy criminal with lank hair, a yellow face and a sinister, silvery glint in his eyes" (the Times again). Before you get carried away, admit – as the Independent's Michael Coveney does – that the "slithery" Atkinson "can't sing very well, and keeps missing the beat".

Coveney is underwhelmed by the appearance of Nancy and you can't help but steal his damning verdict: "The moment [Jodie] Prenger appears, I'm afraid, the heart sinks … Her voice is okay, but she can't act and she doesn't have the depth of lung power to fill a plastic bag." As for Oliver (played on press night by Harry Stott), he's "just about okay" (says Coveney) or more kindly "gentle, likable" (says Nightingale). Ross McCormack's Artful Dodger? Like Michael Billington, you were immune to his cheeky cockney ways: "He seemed too aware of his cute charm."

Finishing off, offer a quick word about the sets – "picturesque and brilliantly ingenious, whirling us round the handsome piazzas and dark alleys" (the Telegraph). And reviewing the situation (boom-boom), you conclude that the show's not perfect, but it's worth picking a ticket or two for Atkinson alone.

Do say: Atkinson steals the show

Don't say: Please sir, I want some more

Reviews reviewed: Misses the bull's eye

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