Oliver! continues at the Grange Park Opera at The Grange, Northington, Hampshire until 2 July.
Rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Getting to the latest revival of Lionel Bart’s 1960 masterpiece in deepest Hampshire is quite a schlepp.
Just when you think you’ve cracked it, there’s yet another narrow, windy country lane to navigate. And then you come to a long, unmade, heavily-potholed, life-endangering path leading to The Grange, Grade I Listed and one of the most celebrated neo-classical mansions in Britain.
But as soon as the extraordinary Jodie Jacobs takes to the stage towards the end of Act I, lifting a perfectly serviceable but far-from-sensational show to a different level, we know ‘It’s a Fine Life’ and well worth going the extra mile for.
Nancy, Bill Sykes’ deluded doxy who gets beaten to death by her evil boyfriend, is a part this little lady, 5ft 2 and eyes-of-blue, was surely born to play and, knowing what’s going to happen to her makes ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ all the more poignant.
Vocally totally assured and with some of Bart’s greatest hits to perform – ‘I’d Do Anything’ and the marvellous tavern song ‘Oom Pah Pah’ are two more – this superb actress-singer has the audience in this 550-seater Grange Theatre in the palm of her hand.
She would be brilliant in any of the musicals Streisand has made famous and it is a mystery why West End producers are not knocking on her door and offering her juicier roles. Every time I see her, she raises the bar.
Oliver! is launching Grange Park Opera’s final summer season in Hampshire before the powers-that-be build their own Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley, Surrey, on land given to them by Bamber Gascoigne in an act of incredible philanthropy towards the arts.
They are more than halfway towards raising the £10 million required to build the 650-seater theatre designed in the style of La Scala, Milan, which is due to open with the great Joseph Calleja in Tosca next June.
With the laudable aim of taking the elitism out of opera, the company will resume putting on the occasional musical in 2018 – last year Bryn Terfel was the sweetener to their opera-loving regulars in Fiddler On the Roof, this year operatic baritone Simon Keenlyside gets reasonably close to the Fagin that Bart had in mind.
He made ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and ‘Reviewing the Situation’ vibrant without over-emphasising the Jewishness of the part in this hybrid of a production which marries opera performers (Keenlyside and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’ Mr Bumble) with musical theatre regulars like Jacobs, Sophie-Louise Dann and Simon Lipkin’s sinister Sykes.
Dann makes an enjoyable Bumble-squeeze Mrs Corney and Gareth Snook’s undertaker Sowerby is nicely observed as is Paul Bentley’s kindly Mr Brownlow, while young Charlie Barnard used his street-dancing training to bring the Artful Dodger to life.
One of the highlights is the professional debut of 12-year-old Wesley Kent-Hargreaves, who makes an excellent impression in the title role and gave a particularly moving ‘Where Is Love?’, one of Bart’s finest.
Say what you like about the high quality of many of the musicals being written today but ‘fings ain’t wot they used t’be’ and for sheer volume of memorable tunes, Bart’s enduring classic will always be hard to beat.
What has always been especially good about Oliver! is that everybody gets at least one good one to sing and there are more than enough of those to go round.
Lizzi Gee choreographs the lively ensemble scenes to perfection, Adam Rowe conducts the Grange Park Showband, Richard Kent’s sets and David Plater’s lighting are suitably smoky and redolent of the lower end of society, and Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy’s expert direction makes sure a long Act I never seems too long.
There are only nine performances. If you fancy a trip, do remember to take your own picnic as there’s a 100-minute interval (and an early start) specifically for that purpose in this gorgeously green part of southern England.
For a fee, you can even hire a porter to wheel your giant champagne-filled hamper from car boot to designated party spot and back again. How the rich live!