Sunday, May 15, 2022

The first night of Oliver!

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Oliver! is the great British musical. I regard that as a statement of fact rather than an opinion.

Legend has it that the opening night audience went wild, but what did the critics make of it?

Well, our old friend J.C. Trewin loved it. Writing for the Birmingham Daily Post on Friday 1 July 1960, the day after Oliver's premiere he confirmed the legend:

"May Dickens forgive me!" said Lionel Bart as he took that surprising thing, an author's call, at the end of Oliver! to-night. He came upon the stage of the New Theatre after the most triumphant reception a musical play, and a British play at that, has had in years.

As for himself:

After the twentieth call we knew what the first-night audience thought. I fancy that Dickensians will forgive Mr. Bart. exclamation mark and all. I repeat, this is not a night for pedantic analysis. You have either to surrender to it or to carp. Personally. I have not found it hard to surrender.

He names the songs from show that he thinks will prove most popular: I'd Do Anything, As Long as He Needs Me and Oom-Papah. 

Maybe it's just because of Ron Moody's performance of them in the film, but today I think first of Reviewing the Situation and Pick a Pocket or Two. 

Who Will Buy?, with its street cries, is in many ways the most interesting, while the least interesting, Food Glorious Food, was the one BBC Radio played to death for a couple of decades.

And this is what Trewin had to say about the cast:

Fagin is presumably allowed to get away. Something, of course, may happen to him later; but that it not in Mr. Bart's scheme, and we could not wish that much would happen to the old fence as Ron Moody presents him, in a fantastic-grotesque performance that is suited exactly to Oliver! if it is not entirely Dickensian ....

But this is not a time to consider the acting too closely. though such a major part as Georgia Brown's Nancy has full spirit. Keith Hamshere is meltingly Oliver. and a sketch of the undertaker's wife by Sonia Fraser, late of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, would aid any production. 

Ron Moody we all know. Georgia Brown is generally acknowledged as being a better Nancy than the film's Shani Wallis, though it's hard not to regret that the money men wouldn't grant Carol Reed's wish to cast Shirley Bassey.

Sonia Fraser had a long career in theatre and was a friend and collaborator of Miriam Margolyes. Keith Hamshere lasted over a year before he grew too tall to play Oliver, then made a couple of films and gave up acting to become one of the leading stills photographers in the film industry.

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