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.

What you hear and see in Oliver! is all the stuff that happens to be around in the Jewish East End of London in the 1950s. (Lionel Bart’s real name was Begleiter and his parents and older siblings were refugees from the Holocaust.) And that stuff isn’t just the obvious American-influenced pop and show music.

The swirling modal tunes for Fagin’s songs are clearly drawn from Jewish musical tradition. The rhythms of a song such as Oom-Pah-Pah are obviously Mittel European. The representations of the criminal underworld, especially of the thug Bill Sykes, seem to owe as much to the world of the Kray twins as they do to Charles Dickens.

What is often left out of Bart’s story is the huge influence of left-wing theatre on Oliver!. Bart’s introduction to the theatre came through his membership of the Communist Party and his involvement with the leftist Unity Theatre and then with Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. The rapid shift of scenes that makes Oliver! so gripping (and that made it possible to adapt it successfully to the cinema) is pure Brecht, filtered through Littlewood’s English music hall sensibility. In fact, Oliver! completes a circle of theatrical influence.

John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) is a big influence on Brecht, who in turn helps to shape the Bart musical that brings the tale of the urban underworld back to its London origins. (It’s not for nothing that Bill Sykes’s theme song in Oliver! has more than a ring of Brecht and Weill’s Macheath theme from The Threepenny Opera.)

If Oliver! comes across as being triumphantly timeless, it is precisely because it draws on such a range of musical, narrative and theatrical ideas, from Gay’s 18th century to Dickens’s 19th and Bart’s own 20th, and from Broadway to music hall to folk tunes to classical harmonies to post-war pop.

This breadth and fecundity allow Oliver! to encompass an extraordinary range of moods. Its heart is very dark indeed – the exploitation and brutalisation of children and young women. It is full of fear – even Fagin is terrified of the future when he’s old and cold. Yet it pulses with life and warmth and the energy of the survivor – not a bad story for a new year.