I confess it, I have previous with this show: in the mid-eighties I was in a fringe production which was selling so badly that one wet Wednesday we’d just decided to give the seven people in the audience their money back when we got a phone call to say that Lionel Bart was on his way.

We hastily sent half the cast out to the local pubs to offer free tickets and drag in some punters, and most of them were still there when Bart and his entourage rocked up. He was in the middle of his twenty-year drinking binge at the time, and somewhat fidgety so after a few minutes of waiting he sat down at the piano in the pit … and started to play the overture. To Oliver!.

Our performance was pretty shabby, and when at the end Bart vomited over the poster it seemed a fitting critique of the show. No need for sick-bags at the Union, though, where in Phil Willmott’s bright production the consistently talented cast and Elliot Davis‘s box-fresh arrangements bring the songs to life with a knuckle-duster punch.

Given the Union’s black box flexibility, it might have been fun to mix the audience with the action, or even transfer across the road to the Union Jack pub to make it more site specific, we are after all supposed to be in a raffish London drinking den where ex-Razor King Fred and tart-with-a-heart Lil are on their uppers like a Berwick Street market cut-price Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide.

If there’s a problem, it’s the scant plot. Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop in Stratford E15 received the script as a straight play by an ex-con, and she set about it with the ferocity of a razor gang – commissioning songs from Bart and literally slashing the pages before scattering them to her cast of improvising actors, including then-unknown George Sewell, Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor.

Apart from the title song there’s nothing memorable, which is probably why they reprise it so often, and it’s striking to think that only a year later, Bart – who never learned to read music – composed the lush and varied score for Oliver!. There’s little light and shade in this material and it largely sounds like a knees-up in Peggy Mitchell’s back room, but Hannah-Jane Fox as Lil finds subtlety in ‘Where Do Little Birds Go’ and Richard Foster-King leads the rollicking tapping first act closer ‘Contempery’, which is where Nick Winston’s choreography really takes off, to send the audience out to the bar glowing with pleasure.

Whilst the central performances of Neil McCaul as Fred and Hadrian Delacey as Sgt Collins are convincing and committed, Delacey has a particularly strong voice, this is something of a lost period for realistic drama and there’s acting-by-hearsay as many of the women sound like Windsor and the men like Del Boy. The two who stand out are differentiated as colourful pavement caricatures: Suzie Chard as a topheavy Barbara precipitately balanced in her rigid corset, and audience favourite Richard Foster-King as Horace the rhapsodically bohemian decorator.

If you’re in the mood for a right-old Cockerney sing-song, get dahn the Union, knock twice and ask for Fred …

Photo: Scott Rylander – Runs until 4th June 2001

The Public ReviewsOriginally published on The Public Reviews.