My lifelong love affair with 'Oliver!'
I can, I hope, maintain a cool, critical detachment about most pieces of theatre. But when it comes to Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, currently running in a sumptuous production at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, I have all the detachment of a barnacle and all the objectivity of a love-struck teenager.
I don’t like Oliver!, I adore it. I love it so much that I was actually in two minds as to whether to go and see it. Would it, after all these years, be like finally getting together with the girl of your adolescent dreams and having to deal with the reality of her middle-aged varicose veins and false teeth?
My love affair with the musical goes back to adolescence. It was the only show we did at school. I played, in addition to an anonymous workhouse boy and third urchin from the left in Fagin’s gang, the dramatically pivotal role of Oliver’s grandfather’s housekeeper, Mrs Bedwin. (Or, as my sniggering cohorts insisted on calling her, Mrs Bedworthy.)
The thrill was not unconnected with the importation to our desert island of frustrated maleness, floating on a raging sea of hormones, of an actual (and truly lovely) girl to play Nancy. But Bart’s apparently effortless melodies and vividly economical storytelling had something to do with it, too.
Although I have watched the wonderful Carol Reed movie version many times, I’d never actually seen the musical on stage. I wasn’t sure I wanted to – why spoil a perfect infatuation with too close an acquaintance?
In the event, Cameron Mackintosh’s touring version of his big West End production is a delight – not least because time has been very kind to Bart’s masterpiece. We can now see Oliver! in a light very different to that which shone on it in the 1960s. Back then, the great divide was between mainstream, middle-class, commercial culture and the supposedly more authentic, rebellious, non-commercial (!) voice of youth.
There were The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, and there were the old-fashioned remnants of a dying Tin Pan Alley, such as Oliver!. Now, it’s obvious that this division was nonsensical. They were all part of that amazing flowering of English popular music in the 1960s. And what they have in common is much more obvious than what divides them. Oliver! may be rooted in the 19th century music hall – but so are The Beatles and The Kinks.
What Bart shares with Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies and Pete Townshend is the glorious eclecticism that gives English popular music of the time its vigour. Bart was even more of a self-taught working-class prodigy than they were – he had no formal training, couldn’t read music and could barely even play the piano. He started out, like John Lennon, in skiffle groups – the 1950s equivalent of the punk band – in which musical illiterates could find their way into performing. And so, like the great pop bands, he made things up as he went along.