Leo Hughes reviews Oliver! by Jigsaw Stage Productions, showing at The Cornerstone, Didcot, April 26 - 28

'NEVER work with children or animals' was WC Fields’ famous advice. Jigsaw Stage Productions, under the confident direction of Gill Morgan, have taken on both those challenges with their current offering, 'Oliver!', and emerged with colours flying high. With nine performances to cover, Ms Morgan has assembled two children’s casts, each 17 strong, to do duty as orphans and Fagin’s gang, and the cast I saw at The Beacon in Wantage on April 6 gave a strong account of favourites 'Food, Glorious Food' and 'Consider Yourself (At Home)'. Thomas Hulme in the title rôle managed to carry the sentimental 'Where Is Love' to the back of the auditorium despite a temporary microphone failure, and was rewarded with very warm and well-deserved applause. Among the grown-ups, Karen Brind as Widow Comey has to be singled out for her perfectly-timed rendition of 'I Shall Scream', and Helena Kerswell for her powerful performance of the show’s great torch song 'As Long As He Needs Me'. Chris Palmer is a menacing Bill Sykes, and his dog (sadly uncredited in the programme) behaved himself perfectly. Strong support is offered by Charlie East and Chris Jones as the horrible Sowerberrys, and Paul Bowers as the bumbling Bumble. Much of the success of Lionel Bart’s conversion of Charles Dickens’ sinister novel into a comic musical is due to Bart’s transformation of Fagin from an evil avaricious manipulator of wayward young boys into a benevolent old gentleman with a taste for antiquarian jewellery and exotic handkerchiefs. Edmund Bennett captured the part splendidly, and his 'Pick A Pocket Or Two' and 'Reviewing The Situation' were stand-out performances. Nimble footwork makes his a very lively presentation of the part, and leads me to a second mention here for Karen Brind, for her direction of the choreography. A second mention is due too to Chris Jones for her work as wardrobe mistress: there’s a fine array of tall hats! Musical direction is by Jevan Johnson Booth on synthesiser, leading a band comprising Dave Harvey on bass, Julian Bown on drums, Anton Gwilt on second keyboard, and Joanne Paterson-Neild switching deftly between assorted reeds and woodwinds. Ms Booth’s brisk approach contributes significantly to the pacing of the production: never a dull moment. It’s sad to think that imminent bankruptcy forced Lionel Bart to sell his rights to 'Oliver!' for £350 (to Max Bygraves, who subsequently sold them on for £250,000). This is a show that will survive as long as there are musicals being performed, and Jigsaw have done it credit. Catch it at The Cornerstone Didcot next week between April 26 and 28. Oh, and those children and animals … my favourite moment was provided by the cat! WC Fields was right.