Stephen Sondheim said, “All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That’s what makes theatre live. That’s why it persists.”
Indeed, even Aristotle commented on the ability of theatre to provide restoration and healing, in a way similar to the performances of the sacred mysteries. The musical, Oliver, performed at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, has this ability.
Oliver is based on Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist. The British musician, Lionel Bart, produced it for the stage in 1960, writing the script, music and lyrics. It ran on Broadway in 1963, was made into a film, and had even more productions over the next decades. The 2009 London revival that I saw was based on a 1994 Palladium production–both were produced by Cameron Mackintosh, although this revival was directed by Shakespeare expert, Rupert Goold, and choreographed/co-directed by Matthew Bourne.
While the show was spectacular, I’d also selected Oliver because of the venue, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which is in London’s Covent Garden district–one of my favorite parts of the city.
Covent Garden has a long history, being first the trading centre of the Anglo-Saxon town of Lundenwic back in the 8th century. It was abandoned, then walled off and put to use as the orchards for Westminster Abbey around 1200. By the mid-1600s it’s reputation as a fashionable square was replaced by one of ill-repute, with the taverns, coffee houses, brothels, and theatres, thus Theatre Royal was born.
- London’s most important theatre for its first two centuries, as it was granted a monopoly to produce spoken plays–this meant it was also one of the most important theatres in the English-speaking world
- First structure on this spot built in 1663, making it London’s oldest theatre. Original name was Theatre Royal in Bridges Street
- Burned in 1672, with replacement designed by Christopher Wren. This theatre was named Theatre Royal Drury Lane
- Demolished in 1791 and reopened as a larger theatre in 1794
- Burned down in 1809
- 1812 reopened–this is the structure still standing today
Theatre Royal Drury Lane was the perfect venue for Oliver, a story of orphan boys being raised in the workhouse and bought and sold as merchandise, pickpockets, burglars, and the seeming inhumanity of the wealthy.
It was also, as Charles Spencer, reviewer for The Telegraph, said of opening night: “absolutely fantastic showbiz.”
That it was a superb performance is obviously one of the key reasons that Oliver, performed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, made #24 on my staycation list of favorite places I’ve visited in previous years. I love theatre and highly recommend this performance–now on a UK tour–to everyone.
The singing was awesome, even though I struggled to understand young Ben’s Cockney accent. It reminded me, as a writer, how fluid language is, and how the voice of a character needs to emerge from the story as being distinctive.
I also find character in old buildings, such as the theatre itself. It’s almost as if the walls could tell tales about its reconstructions and facelifts. If I closed my eyes I could see some of the other memorable moments on its stage…the annual pantomimes of the early 1900s, My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison, running for five years, and Miss Saigon, the longest ever run at Drury Lane, ten years in all. While ultimately, as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage,” it’s only at the theatre that we get repeat performances.
Current show listings and tickets to Theatre Royal Drury Lane are available at – http://www.london-theatreland.co.uk/theatres/theatre-royal-drury-lane/theatre.php
Information about Oliver, play dates and locations, are available at – http://oliverthemusical.com/