Compared with the claustrophobia of Bedlam, Pleasance Theatre offers a certain luxury of space, heating and opportunity for orchestra which most student spectators are likely unaccustomed to. Yet, the promise of professionalism and sophistication is mostly superficial within the context of Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group’s pantomime-like production of Oliver!
Echoing the workhouse master’s lack of control, director Erica Belton seems to struggle with the coordination of such a large chorus as this production boasts. Opening with ‘Food, Glorious, Food’, dozens of dishevelled workhouse children run through the audience to then hurriedly cram onto the not ungenerously-sized stage. Immediately the excess of cast members becomes evident, as Kathryn Young’s incredible ambitions of choreography are disappointingly rendered messy by the bumbling mass of student performers. Similarly, the intention of harmonising with an orchestra often results in missed timings which mute dialogue on more than one occasion, suggesting that EUSOG’s over-ambition defines this production.
The overabundance of bodies on stage also threatens to distract from the performances of the principal characters that are crucial in establishing a believable plot. The play’s second half thankfully strips down certain scenes of actors to enable a more direct focus onto the outstanding singing talent of Oliver!’s main cast. It seems likely that the casting team prioritised singing ability over acting talent as, despite their impressive solos, Oliver and Mr Bumble offer little else in terms of dramatic realism. Richard Blaquière as Mr Bumble seems particularly unable to shed his awkward, schoolboy mannerisms, and perhaps a less tentative choice for the role would have proved more impressive.
There is a certain lack of ownership of character on the part of some of the characters who instead appear possessed by concentration over their singing performances, as opposed to projecting deeper, visual emotion that might stir the audience’s emotions. In juxtaposition, Kathryn Salmond’s flare as Fagin comes as a refreshingly original interpretation that, with her crazed edginess, inevitably reveals the timidity of other cast members in embracing their character.
However, it is Grace Dickson’s on-stage presence as Nancy that is truly stunning and more than compensates for the rest of the play’s hindrances. While Oliver’s rendition of ‘Where Is Love’ is typically the play’s most emotional performance, in EUSOG’s production it is indisputable that Dickson’s phenomenally sung ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ finally sees a combination of singing talent with authenticity of character that has the power to affect the audience. Dickson’s performance is also undoubtedly aided by the fact that she is privileged with an empty stage, rid of chorus members who previously diluted the power of a solo.
An unfortunate mismatch of real talent, standalone singing ability and over-expectation from an excessively large student cast; EUSOG’s production shouldn’t be deemed a failure, but neither can it be considered a success.
Runs until 2nd December
Photo Credit: Andrew Perry