“Please, sir, can I have some more grime”

You can understand why amateur companies produce Lionel Bart’s Oliver! every so often: it’s cheerful, has a reasonable amount for the chorus to do (and can cope with lots of them) and the age range of the characters is probably a good match to the composition of the company.

Above all, it has the K-factor (kids), which greatly increases the P/G/S/A/U ratios (parents, grandparents, siblings, you work it out) in the audience, It’s not the most demanding show on the amateur circuit, and some of the lyrics are enough to make you wince, but few companies complain when the result is a full house.

The cavernous auditorium at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig theatre was certainly stuffed with proud relatives watching the Stevenage Lytton Players’ Oliver! Overall, this production, directed by Maxine Holmes with musical direction from Robert Parker, was well staged and enjoyable, if a little lacking in spark and grubbiness.

Debbie Stevens played a superb Nancy, with a powerful voice and demeanour, all too aware of how her relationship with Sykes and Fagin was destroying her soul, and Martin Desmond’s Sykes was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

I could have wished for a little more patriarchal dominance and opium-fuelled sleaziness from Charlie Fletcher as Fagin – at times he seemed no more threatening than a Victorian carpet salesman.

Bob Sulzbach and Julia Nicholson as Mr Bumble and Widow Corney were entertaining, and the rest of the cast supported well, although I’m not sure either Dickens or Bart intended Dr Grimwig to be Prussian. Lesley Humphreys as Mrs Sowerberry gave another good performance, although I was stifling a laugh when she complained the Oliver – as tall as she – was “very small”.

The company had hired a sufficiently grimy multi-purpose set, which was smoothly handled by the stage crew under Mike Colbert and well lit by Andy Rouse. Clever positioning of the set and Ms Holmes’s staging meant that the cast never looked lost on the Gordon Craig’s dauntingly large stage.

The costumes, sadly, spoiled the effect somewhat by being spotlessly clean and (bar few exceptions) in perfect repair, which certainly would not have been the case in reality.

If anything, the production lacked a little spark. There were occasions when the chorus looked happy enough, but often I felt that they were almost too disciplined to show the sharp edges of either the humour or the drudgery of their characters’ lives.

Occasionally, too, there were unrealistic moments that had several chorus members on stage going about their daily lives, but in complete silence.

But, for its audience, Oliver! rises and falls by its children . This troupe was well drilled and enthusiastic, and led by Billy Humphreys as a cheeky Artful Dodger and Adam Rush as a cherubic Oliver, a role that never seems to be as large as it ought. His rendition of Where is Love? will have brought a tear to his mother’s eye. And the audience loved it.

Russell Vincent – The Mercury, 4th June 2004 Reproduced by kind permission of the Hertfordshire Mercury