I trekked down to Manchester a while back, to see Oliver, the Lionel Bart musical, in its current incarnation. A great show. Neil Morrisey, who I can remember from his days as Michael Elphick’s skinny sidekick in ‘Boon,’ as Fagin, was excellent. The kids ensemble was fabulous, and the production, from props, to sets, to lighting and sound worked amazingly and looked stunning. The theatre itself, The Palace on Oxford Street, was plush and truly traditional in red and gold – Dickensian in fact -with a Grand Tier at the top more steeply raked than the flanks of Hallin Fell.

There’s a but coming though, which is why, oh why, does this production feel the need to sex-up the action? A bit of gratuitous titillation is no bad thing. I’m usually ready to put my hand in my pocket for it, but in Oliver? Some tawdry simulated sexual horseplay, notably during the Oom-pah-pah number seemed uncomfortably out of place, and didn’t add anything to the story – though it did make me wonder if the producers doubted the power of the story…. after all it only has loss of parents, child poverty, virtual slavery, criminal exploitation, abusive relationships, corruption in public bodies and murder to offer. Georgian England, by all accounts, had been a much more rumbustious place. Fielding’s Tom Jones, written a century before Oliver Twist, has a much more prevalent violence, but one that is routine rather than shocking, and his Squire Weston, who is of the class above Dickens, has a mouth as foul as any of Dickens’ low lifes!

From the sublime to the black and white, I followed Oliver the musical, with Oliver the silent movie. Made by Jackie Coogan and released in 1929, preserved in a Czech film archive, restored and re-issued by the BFI, on dvd, this version of the tale is truer to the original than Bart’s enjoyable romp. It still cuts to the chase more simply than the novel, but retains the characters of Monks, and Claypole. The dog, is a star! But so is the young boy who plays Oliver, and the influence of live theatre is strongly there, that stage make-up, which turns all characters into caricatures is strongly in evidence. Beneath it though there was some serious acting, as well as theatrical projecting.

What struck me most though was the similarity of the costumes, and of the staging of many of the scenes, as if Dickens’ early novel has become almost a traditional tale, with a traditional presentation: the ambience and tone of the written work living on in its dramatic and technological descendants.

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