04 April 2007

Oliver! Ravensbourne Light Operatic Society, Churchill Theatre Bromley, Friday 6th April 2007

Ravensbourne are one of the area’s leading amateur operatic societies, although in the main are a "musical" or “dance” company rather than an “operatic” one – you won’t find them performing Gilbert and Sullivan, for instance. And for such a large company, with so many stalwart members, this was an odd show to choose – there are really only three big chorus numbers for the adults, very few opportunities for supporting players to shine, and only a couple of big roles. You also need lots of anklebiters and a couple of precocious youngsters for the title role and that of the Artful Dodger. Having said that, it’s a good “family” show – and if you have lots of kids in the show, ticket sales are practically guaranteed. And I gather that this is what happened – certainly at this performance, there didn’t seem to be a seat to be had. Shame then that the front of house staff (obviously not used to dealing with capacity audiences) seemed unable to cope and that insufficient ice cream was in stock.

What was blatantly obvious from the beginning was that the director was obviously far more experienced (being a school drama teacher) at directing children than adults – all the children looked drilled with military precision, whereas some of the direction of adults looked woeful – particularly badly done was the scene where Nancy is murdered. The Churchill has an enormous stage, yet often many of the adults in the chorus seemed to be lined up at the back, rather as if nobody knew what to do with them. The dog – Bullseye – was also under-used; if you are going to go to all the trouble of having a dog on stage, you must use it, otherwise you might just as well not have it at all.
James Pallant as Oliver himself was a revelation – just what you want from the part. A good clear voice, excellent diction, angelic looks and great stage presence. Theo Smithard-Powell was not nearly so good as the Artful Dodger, seeming ill at ease a lot of the time and moving awkwardly and self-consciously. The dreadful costume really didn’t help – but then nobody really looks good in an orange velour tailcoat. Among the adults, John Coleman gave a masterly Fagin, proving that lack of physical stature does not necessarily mean lack of stage presence. His slight build, however, did make him sometimes extremely difficult to pick out when surrounded by his young charges. This is a difficult role to pull off – just as all actresses playing Lady Bracknell have to tackle the shade of Edith Evans, all actors playing Fagin have to transcend the Ron Moody (or indeed the Len Thorpe!) interpretation, and this John managed with aplomb, capering gleefully about the stage with the energy of a man half his age. Tim Maunder was “A-list” casting for the small role of Bill Sykes – butch, rough and with a voice sounding like his regular tipple in “The Three Cripples” was a pint of beer with a gravel chaser. It would have been good to have seen him interact physically with Nancy though. You need to get a sense of her being one of those women who, on one hand, wilfully submit to Sykes’ rough passions but, on the other, find themselves quantifying their terror of walking away from physical abuse by saying “But I love him”, when they are really trying to justify their fear of being alone. None of this did we get to see on stage. Anita Singh was perhaps not ideal casting as Nancy – certainly “As Long As He Needs Me” needs, deserves and cries out for a singer who can really belt this out with raw emotion across the footlights – but this Nancy was obviously trying to sing “properly”, to the song’s and the character’s detriment. The poor staging of this number didn’t help – for both the song and its reprise, she was literally marooned in front of a dropped in cyc-cloth. Some of the staging of “I’d Do Anything” seemed to have been lifted straight from the film.

Of the smaller roles, credit must go to Jane Kerfoot as Mrs. Sowerby. She played this role with genuine gusto as a real Dickensian villainess – in fact, if this is what she is capable of, it was a shame that she didn’t bring it to her role as the Wicked Witch in last year’s “Wizard of Oz”. Credit is also due to Myra Warwick who, as the archetypal “safe pair of hands” brought dignity and quiet humour to the somewhat thankless role of Widow Corney. She did look rather trapped at one point by some awkwardly placed furniture in her scenes, and the business with the teacups really didn’t help. I long to see her “pull out all the stops” one day and show us what she is really capable of, however. Clive Bebee was utterly plumptious as Bumble the Beadle, nicely combining humour and evil, even though the role would perhaps have been better served by playing it as pure evil. Fabulous top notes and a command of the stage that only the really gifted have. The montage of sequences when he drags poor Oliver through the snowy streets was something I wish Charles Dickens could have seen.

Something really must be done about the sound quality at the Churchill. All the principals were miked up, yet no effort had been made by the sound crew to bolster the poor chorus. I gather that this is a "historical" problem with certain crew members employed by the Churchill and should therefore not be taken as a criticism of those on stage. Having said that, with so many bodies on stage, the Ravensbourne chorus really should be capable of producing a bigger sound than they did. The first street scene was wonderfully directed with the hustle and bustle of the Whitechapel streets filling the stage so completely that it was difficult to know quite where to look – like a Victorian print come so totally to life that it threatened to burst out of its frame. The Punch and Judy show was a particularly nice touch. So it was a real shame that “Oom-Pah-Pah” and (particularly) “Who Will Buy?” failed to come anywhere near the highwater mark set by this. One particular point for the choreographer – leave running jetés to those dancers actually capable of performing them; “making a game stab at it” just doesn’t work and looks incredibly naff when it fails to come off. I would also have liked to see more dirt and grime portrayed on stage – all the chorus looked far too clean, well dressed and fresh-faced to convince that they were members of the Great Victorian Underclass. There was obviously “Trouble Dahn T’Pit” as the orchestra and stage parted company on several occasions, and at one point the left hand side of the orchestra even parted company with the right hand side.

Generally though, I “Consider Myself” well pleased with the show and offer my congratulations to the company.
My review of this seems to have touched raw nerves of at least two of the company, by the sound of the comments left on this posting. Can I just refer those two people back to the header at the top of the main blog page? These comments are "my uninformed opinions". I am not a professional critic and merely say what I think. I could be sharp and say something like "If you're not prepared to take criticism, then don't pursue a leisure activity which invites same" but I won't. As a performer myself, I've had criticism levelled at some of my performances, some of which has hurt a great deal. But the first rule of responding to criticism is: DON'T.


jimbo said...

I thought Anita (Nancy) sang fabolously and with great passion.

I thought Who will buy was very very good to and an equivalent of Consider Yourself.

James Pallant (Oliver)

Anonymous said...

At least one child in the audience was terrified for weeks after seeing Jane Kerfoot as the Wicked Witch in 'Wizard of Oz', so it's just as well she didn't give that role any more of her beautiful wickedness or RLOS would have been in trouble with the child protection people.

rtb said...

Some people are obviously not very good at taking criticism!

Anonymous said...

A comprehensive and honest review of a good amateur production. The children that participated were particularly good and I agree with your comments about young Oliver - excellent! I saw the Sat night show (the final performance) and the "sound issues" with poor mic setups were still evident, but all in all an enjoyable evening!