Oliver! Captivate Theatre

This post has been contributed by Erin Horáková. Read her previous posts here and here.

“Oliver, never before has a boy—“ no, sorry. I have come to review Captivate Theatre’s Edinburgh Fringe production of Oliver! at the Rose Theatre, not to launch into the big titular number. Hard to resist it, though.

Oliver! does such a good job of adapting Oliver Twist that it begins to seem strange that so many ‘period drama’ adaptations are joyless, homogenous, National Trust-branded awkward nonentities. Oliver!’s formula is, after all, rather simple. The musical understands that the titular character doesn’t need to be particularly compelling or the centre of attention. This is a parish boy’s progress, not a Hero’s Journey. Oliver is the youthful plot impetus rather than the psychological agent his successors David and Pip will be. Oliver! relishes the novel’s dialogue and lifts it where possible. It gets the book’s jokes and tells them well, it makes a meal of Dickens’ big, theatrical characters, and it’s more interested in the themes and mechanical tensions of the story than in re-enacting every element of the plot with slavish fidelity.

Whole plot lines melt away in the crucible of a two-hour run-time, and that’s fine. We didn’t exactly have time to do justice to Oliver’s period with the Maylies, so the plot offices occupied by Oliver’s several protectors were neatly condensed and given over to Brownlow. We don’t need Monks as an antagonist when we have Sikes’ arc, which ties in more organically with the story’s most memorable characters and is more visually dramatic and easier to understand in a theatrical presentation than Monks’ vengeful inherited Puritanical spite. This is the version of Oliver Twist the West End musical format can best realise.

I’d class Oliver! with The Muppet Christmas Carol and Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby as a truly great adaptation. These works are well-suited to their formats. They create their own art with the source material, drawing extensively from it and yet primarily respecting the spirit rather than the letter of their chosen texts. These successful adaptations define texts by their concerns and affects rather than by their events in every particular. Thus the texts in question survive these translations of medium more coherently than they could via a treatments more invested in rote fidelity.

Oliver! musical film posterThe film version of Oliver! is so iconic that it risks making the actual stage play seem redundant. Why go when you’ve got the DVD? When the filmic production is, in the popular imaginary, so definitive? There are of course people who will tell you about the preeminent importance of the phenomenological uniqueness of live theatre, but as I’m not really one of them, I’d emphasize instead the interest to be derived from different staging choices. If you know Oliver! mainly as a film, then it’s interesting to hear, in this staged Oliver!, a somewhat different version of “Who Will Buy?”, and outright strange to be introduced to the delightful undertaker’s anthem “That’s Your Funeral”. Captivate’s production also included Bill Sikes’ song, “My Name”. The film cuts Sikes’ song, likely to render him an even greater threat, a strange aberration in the generic-world as well as a locus of violence within it. ‘He loves no plays, as thou dost, Antony. He hears no music.’ That’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re looking to make cuts in order to create a little space for the inevitable time-stealing nods to filmic realism a deeply literal mass-market audience expects, but it’s clearly not the only choice you could make. “My Name” is a creepy number, and Captivate’s Bill carried it off chillingly.

Captivate Theatre is part professional company, part theatre school. The former gives them an expertise and quality of presentation the equal, or better, of any staging. They’re not as clearly monied as the publicly-funded National Theatre (which can build forests of birch trees interlaced with coursing waterfalls whenever they fancy a Chekov) or as conceptual as the Donmar Warehouse (which, for example, just this season staged “Committee (A New Musical), subtitle: The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company […] based on a transcript of the select committee convened in October 2015 to examine the collapse of [the charity] Kids Company, provided by successive governments with more than £42m”), but they’re excellent at being the type of theatre they are. The theatre school component provides Captivate with a truly astounding number of urchins. The sheer mass of urchinry was certainly up there with a West End show: the stage was twenty deep with them. There wasn’t a weak performer in the cast, but for me the stand-out was Meg Laird-Drummond, a gifted and emotive singer who lent Nancy both pathos and full-bodied vibrancy. Nancy can be a bit of a wet-blanket non-entity. But without show-boating, Laird-Drummond’s performance made her, if anything, the protagonist and the moral lever of the play.

It was good to see a historically-accurate cast—by which I mean there were touches of ethnic diversity. An all-white 19th-century London is a retrospective re-imagining, but that representation is so common it doesn’t strike us as both inaccurate and unpleasantly ideologically motivated. Given how racist modern professional theatrical casting can be, and the limited opportunities that can afford actors of colour, introducing realistically mixed casting where people have been trained not to expect it can only be to the good. The first swelling London crowd scene filled me with a strange eagerness, on my last day at the Edinburgh Fringe, to get on the train home. There is a palpable sense of place in this production, which feels especially appropriate given that Dickens himself has become something like the capital’s genius loci.

Captivate made only negligible missteps. For example “I Shall Scream”, the incipient Mrs. Bumble’s swan-song to the single-life, could have been a bit more carefully directed—less earnest, more ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ beg-me-for-it. This production made do with a young man for the undertaker Sowerberry, and thus Mrs. Sowerberry shifted from the undertaker’s wife to his mother. The decision to play Sowerberry as a lean figure of camp menace with mummy and money issues made him more Heepish than is perhaps textual, but Heep is the more fun graveyard-adjacent villain anyway, so go on, then. The finale is a mess that asks you, in quick succession, to feel frightened and then sad about Nancy’s murder, grimly satisfied in Sikes’ capture, relieved and elated about Oliver’s rescue, and something about Fagin’s implied death (Fagin’s “Last Night Alive” here being condensed into a potentially meaningful but somewhat oblique handkerchief-drop), but that’s not really this production’s fault so much as the whole musical’s. After an impressive sprint, Oliver! writer Lionel Bart sort of smudges the ending together, smearing the emotional trajectory. This doesn’t spoil the piece, but it’s telling that the film chooses to elongate Bill’s run, after the source text, and to rescue Fagin at the last.

Isn’t it curious how squeamish we are now about Nancy’s death? I’m not suggesting it’d be handsome in us to relish the spectacle, but it’s curious that this production chose to stage a quick, if savage, beating on a bridge, behind a piece of the staging’s minimal scenery. This removal from the novel’s bedroom murder scene makes Sikes an antagonist in an adventure narrative rather than a domestic abuser. Nancy is no longer choked, dragged, and bludgeoned to death at close range, as she was in the novel and indeed in Dickens’ own reputedly terrifying public performances of the scene. We think ourselves less squeamish than Victorians (while simultaneously and contradictorily thinking ourselves less cruel and more sensitive), but we seemingly can’t stomach the death scene as it happened, anymore.

It’s odd that the play and film would willingly relinquish the dramatic power and pathos of the scene as written and first performed. It’s possible that Nancy’s death is too awful for the musical to contain—too threatening to the overall tone, too difficult to emotionally resolve, especially so close to the finale. The already messy ending could collapse under her death scene’s emotional weight. Perhaps there’s simply not enough time in two hours to incorporate the book’s extremes of emotion. But the choice to sanitise Nancy’s death could also have to do with the posthumous reimagining of Dickens as in some ways a children’s author, or at least a family-friendly one, and shifting definitions of what is advisable for children to see and know.

Speaking of shifting understandings of what’s representationally appropriate, this was positively the most goyishe Fagin I’ve ever seen. I practically suspected him of grabbing a bacon cheeseburger during the interval. “Well, that’s one way to avoid the problem,” remarked Israeli critic Abigail Nussbaum. Is it, though?

Queer Jew Lionel Bart positively reclaimed Fagin, doing the work Dickens’ apologetic creation of Riah in Our Mutual Friend couldn’t lastingly accomplish in the popular imagination. Bart’s efforts make Fagin the character we are satisfied to see go free to thieve another day at Dodger’s side at the end of Oliver! the film, the character Alan Moore depicts as the grown Dodger’s quasi-positive model in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Fagin’s no longer quite a bad thing to be. This Fringe even offered us an hour and twenty minute long “high-energy, contemporary hip hop reimagining of Dickens’s Oliver Twist […] an evocative story of Fagin’s youth, corrupted by greed and worn down by poverty.” (Fagin’s Twist, Avant Garde Dance, ZOO Southside)

Thanks to Bart, Fagin is a touch Falstaffian: gloriously awful. Dickens is usually far more interested in his grotesque villains than in his pantomime heroes to begin with. Fondly reclaiming the rascal is a signature Dickensian move. Bart’s treatment of Fagin is ingenious in that it transforms Fagin and Twist via just such a reclamation, which is very ‘on brand’ for the Dickens canon. Bart’s version feels like story as it could have gone, and as some of Dickens’ stories did go.

Given the nature of Bart’s project and success, I’m not sure that contemporary productions’ attempts to mitigate Fagin’s ethnicity (presumably in an effort to cater to what a group of goys imagines I’ll find inoffensive) actually does anyone any favours. You’re left, in this production, with the strange Jewish musical cues embedded in “Reviewing the Situation”, assigned to a Fagin who’s Cockney as a jellied eel. Charlie Munro is a perfectly competent Fagin, but something is lost here. I missed the familiar intonations, the hammy cantorical riffs. Part of what made Oliver! so astoundingly successful in the first place was its structural Jewishness—its trans-Atlantic communication with Jewish-dominated American musical theatre culture, which relied heavily on Yiddish theatre for its foundations. Oliver! is littered with Question Songs (“Where Is Love?” “Who Will Buy?” “Reviewing the Situation”), a distinctively Jewish musical style derived from Yiddish lullabies and protest songs which bring “the listener into a world far beyond the scope of the play.” Oliver! is thus able to access broad intellectual questions and emotional registers, to offer up a Dickensian polyphonic quality, by virtue of this technical feature. The instrumental music itself (in a musical where almost every song’s a banger) is, as Andrew P. Killick explains in great depth in his essay in “Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music”, Jewish-coded at the note-level, especially where Fagin is concerned. At Oliver’s debut, Killick notes that a reviewer “points to a feature of instrumentation, the ‘lush violin obbligato,’ as a musical sign of [Fagin’s] Jewishness, but there are many other features he could have mentioned, both here and in Fagin’s other song, ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’. ‘Reviewing the Situation’ takes the old alternating verse-chorus structure of operetta and maps it onto an alternation between the ‘chant’ and the ‘dance’ imaged of Jewish music. […] In Oliver!, then, a particular cluster of musical features amounts to a sign that the character with whom they are associated in Jewish.” Killick frames his excellent musical exegesis with a reading of anti-Semitism in Twist that is somewhat frustratingly pedestrian, considered via the frameworks of Jewish Studies or 19th century literary scholarship. As the Yiddish proverb goes, ‘ainer vaist nit dem anderens krenk’. ‘One can never know another’s heart.’ Or another’s subject.

Bart’s reclaiming can occur in the performance as well as in the text. Perhaps it must do this, if his project is to land at all. A friend and colleague, the daughter of a Denver rabbi, fondly described her Jewish Community Centre’s 1990s Oliver! staging to me: they performed with relish, the result was hilarious, and they took a visceral delight in Fagin as a plum part. The JCC production played him up, if anything. After all, Fagin is as drawn from life as Fiddler’s Tevye, and as much a part of Ashkenazi cultural heritage. And really—who’s more memorable and fun? Who’d you rather play? It isn’t Tevye. We have our heroes and we have our villains—or at least we have people who resisted the crushing class stratification of 19th century capitalism via anti-social means. “The poor who fought back,” as they’ve been called. In a way, Oliver! and Fagin are ours, through historical inspiration and Bart’s efforts. Who are concerned citizens to try to polish all the ‘us’ off them, especially when Salvaging Fagin is one of the most interesting and culturally pervasive things Oliver! does, the meme equivalent of its ear-wormy lyrics about ‘food, glorious food’?

Oliver! is musically excellent, clever, and thoughtfully engaged with both Twist and Dickens’ overall thematic concerns. This is, representational musings aside, a really solid production of Oliver!, which is no mean thing to be.

Works Cited

Killick, Andrew P. “Music as Ethnic Marker in Film: The ‘Jewish’ Case.” Soundtrack Available: Essays on Film and Popular Music. Eds. Pamela Robertson Wojcik and Arthur Knight. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2001.

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