Last night I saw Oliver! at the Bristol Hippodrome. The last time I saw Oliver! on stage I was dinky. We discussed it last night at the theatre bar and guessed I was about seven or eight years old. I don’t remember much other than falling in love. I also don’t remember the first time I saw the 1968 film but I’ve watched it countless times since.
It was interesting watching the stage performance as an adult. It’s difficult to see the film from a distance when I basically know the script and every movement by heart, but the stage performance is a little different. I was able to take a step back and appreciate the story in a new light.
I know the story of Oliver! is dark. It’s full of violence, orphans who are sold, children who die inside chimneys, poor living in slums and forced to steal and women and children being beaten. Yet Oliver! disguises all of this by being gloriously aesthetically rich and full of fantastic musical numbers. There’s a comedy element and a happy ending and all of this means that you can choose to ignore the violence.
When I was little I always focused on Oliver and Dodger. I loved Fagin but I think that was because Dodger loved him. Last night I studied Fagin and Bill Sykes and Nancy. They are the adult stars of the story and all three are so completely different from one another and yet still make up this little family.
Bill Sykes is the evil villain. In fact, in order to cope with the painful reality of Sykes, Oliver! has been turned into a pantomime where the audience actually booed the actor as he came to take his bow. He is violent, quiet, stocky and just plain scary. There isn’t a lot more to him, until he murders Nancy and then there is a panic and, perhaps, a hint of regret. He did love Nancy and he got carried away, maybe because he was scared or maybe he saw red and simply lost his mind. Unfortunately that is the limit to the depth of Sykes. Whether this is due to him merely being a tool to put Oliver in danger or whether this is because his character has been softened and moulded to suit a younger audience and happy-go-lucky story. (I haven’t read the book and never will as I find Dickens very boring.)
Fagin, on the other hand, is the grey area. On one hand he is a crook but he is a villain with boundaries which is what separates him from Sykes. He’s the element of comedy, a father figure for a lot of lost children and a business man, buying Sykes’ stolen wares to sell on. He also, in my opinion, has all of the best musical numbers. You cannot help but love Fagin. He makes you smile and he cares for children – what is there not to love? But there’s more to Fagin than this, there’s that deep desire to change. He doesn’t want to be a crook, does he? A man can change, can’t he? That in itself adds layers to Fagin and makes him a loveable and intriguing character.
So that leaves Nancy. I never paid much attention to Nancy. It took me a while to realise she actually dies, murdered by her lover Sykes. I remember being quite shocked when I watched the film for the millionth time and it finally dawned on me. The story hides it well, covering the murder behind the walls of the bridge. The scene is so fast with so much excitement and shouting, it’s easy as a child to miss the essence of what’s happened.
Last night it was like I saw Nancy for the first time. I heard her properly for the first time. Nancy is a strong, clever, brilliant woman. She’s also a victim of abuse. In love with Bill Sykes, she sings of suffering from black eyes and is shown constantly trying to break up fights that Sykes tries to start. She’s also brave and stands up to this brute when he threatens Oliver.
When I was growing up, I was taught that to be a victim of domestic abuse is not due to someone being weak or stupid. It’s a complex situation of mixed emotions. Someone might stay with their abuser because of a number of reasons. For some reason it never really occurred to me that the victim of abuse could actually be a strong, smart, out spoken woman. Not because I thought the victims would be stupid, but because I’d never really thought about it. I’ve never had a reason to and for that I am very lucky. But it is this element that makes Nancy suddenly one of the most interesting characters on stage.
Nancy is in denial. She has convinced herself that Sykes needs her and being the warm hearted, loyal woman that she is, she will stick by him. This serves her well until Oliver comes into her life and she is suddenly torn between sticking by her man and protecting this little boy who has the chance of a life she never had. Nancy does the right thing but unfortunately she’s in love with a violent thug and her ending is not a happy one. For the first time, last night I had a tear in my eye as Bill Sykes beat Nancy to death.
As a writer who is currently struggling with my own writing prowess, I found it therapeutic to dissect these characters. It was something familiar that I was seeing as if for the first time and that gave me a completely new view on the story. The plot is simple but the imagery and character layers makes it brilliant. This is something I have been trying to replicate in my novels for around five years now. Sadly, being so close to my own work I have no idea if I’m even close to hitting this mark. Right now it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
Last night’s performance was brilliant. If you’re local to Bristol, I highly recommend seeing it. The only disappointing part for me was the end. As beloved Fagin walked into the sunset, leaving a smile plastered firmly on my face, no Dodger appeared to join him! Still a fantastic ending, but the final scene of Oliver! for me will always be Fagin and Dodger walking into the sunset together.
I couldn’t find a video of this so instead here’s one of my favourite songs!