Theatre review: Oliver!, Edinburgh Playhouse

FIRST, a confession: there are times when I long for someone in British theatre to have the courage to take one of Charles Dickens’s great stories of wealth and poverty in 19th century London, and set it in the same divided city today.

To the public for whom Dickens wrote, the Artful Dodger and his mates were not lovable cheeky chappies caught in a picturesque historical frame, they were more like an gang of child beggars run by a sinister illegal immigrant, objects of real fear and loathing, and serious punitive rage.

If we must have Dickens as a good-looking period piece, though, then Cameron Mackintosh’s new touring production of Oliver!, at the Playhouse until 23 June, delivers tremendous value for money, and a genuinely gripping dramatic experience. It’s not that the production is entirely flawless: the first 40 minutes are strangely distant and unyielding, played out in light so dim that it’s difficult to see the actor’s faces. There’s also an unfortunate, patronising tendency to overplay some scenes for crude laughs.

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The odd misjudgment apart, though, this Oliver! storms through Dickens’s story in fine style, helped by an impressive and thoughtful performance from Brian Conley as Fagin, and a dazzling set by Totie Driver and Adrian Vaux, which constantly moves and shifts perspective. The singing is brilliantly supported by Toby Higgins’s 14-piece pit orchestra; and the set-piece song-and-dance numbers in the thieves’ kitchen are so vividly and brilliantly staged, by a cast of more than 40, that at the end of some of the show’s great songs, the audience simply get to their feet, and – like Oliver himself – start shouting for more.

Rating: ****