When Charles Dickens completed his novel Oliver Twist in 1839, little did he imagine that it would attain worldwide acclaim and remain one of the classics of all time even after more than a century after his death.
Never would he expect that it would one day be featured as a play, much less in a theatre right next to what was then the site of a flower, fruit and vegetable market. He would probably have flipped should he know that Fagin, regardless of the deficiency in character, has been brought to life by none other than the same person whom the public came to know as Mr. Bean.
Oliver Twist, which opens in Jan 2009 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a mere 50m away from Covent Garden, features Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, and fresh faced Harry Scott as Oliver and Jodie Prenger as Nancy. Both Scott and Prenger landed on their respective roles after coming out tops in BBC1 casting competition "I'll do anything".
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where the Oliver Twist musical is hosted is not exactly near Shaftesbury Avenue where the main West End shows are. However, Oliver Twist found a selling point in casting Rowan Atkinson as Fagin and it went all out to promote that.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with its large seating capacity can easily rival that of Queen's Theatre (Les Miserables) and Apollo Victoria Theatre (Wicked the Musical). Its wide and deep stage was used to utmost effect by the extensive stage props. The one thing that really impressed me was the creative use of 'moving skyline' to mimic the narrow streets of London. There was a scene when Oliver was chased through the streets after a failed pickpocket attempt where that effect made it looked as if he was actually running along the passageways..
Also, there was much emphasis on details in the props. Take special note of the silhouette of a ship moving in the background at a pier side pub in a scene between Bill, Nancy and Fagin. Blink and you might just miss it.
Atkinson's Fagin was… well, what can I say? He was absolutely delightful. Fagin was literally a 19th century Mr. Bean with a deep singing voice. His antics and mannerism was unmistakably that of the comic character that we are so familiar with. There was a scene where he introduced a newly acquired ring (oh yes) to a his string of pearls…
"Ring, meet Pearls… Pearls, meet Ring." And he proceeded to mimic a conversation between the two. There you go. A classic Mr. Bean's scene. Oh, did I also mention that there was a teddy bear involve in another scene?
Although Oliver Twist thrived on a number of large scenes that involve more than 20-30 casts (total cast of around 60) at once with colourful costumes and carefully choreographed steps designed to thrill the audience, I felt a bit overwhelmed and the thrill effect wore of pretty soon after that. Also, the musical tried to keep true to Charles Dickens's original work by including scenes such as the mortuary house, which didn't make much of an impact other than prolonging the musical.
Well, if you are a fan of Atkinson, go get a ticket fast as his last performance will be on 18th July. Whoever replaces him thereafter would have huge shoes to fill. Before heading for the box office, you might wish to get acquainted with the story of Oliver Twist.
London, WC2B 5JF
Tube: Covent Garden
Box Office: 0870 890 6002