I am an unashamed fan of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! The film captured my imagination when I was very young and, although I had nightmares about Bill Sykes, I learnt every word of every song and wore out my vinyl LP of a “special cast recording” starring Jon Pertwee as a fabulous Fagin. Despite this, it wasn’t until I saw Phil Scott’s excellent Reviewing the Situation at this year’s Melbourne Cabaret Festival that I realised I knew nothing about Oliver!’s creator, Lionel Bart, beyond the fact that he was English.
Written by Phil Scott and Terence O’Connell and directed by O’Connell, Reviewing the Situation reveals Bart as a man from humble origins in the East End of London who hit the big time because of his talent for writing catchy songs and for being in the right place at the right time. As portrayed by Scott, he is the quintessential cheeky, warm-hearted Cockney who loves a laugh and a pint. For me, he’s a bit like the Muppets’ Fozzie Bear in human form.
The setting for the show is Bart’s flat. He is near the end of his life (the real Bart died in 1990) and is reminiscing about his career’s high and low points. Having once been the toast of London and Hollywood, he has fallen on hard times due to poor financial decisions (he sold the rights to Oliver! to finance a subsequent production and was declared bankrupt in 1972) and substance abuse. From living in a lavish apartment and knowing everybody who is anybody, he is now alone and ill and living above a laundromat.
Influenced as a young boy by the singing he heard in synagogue and the Yiddish theatre his grandmother took him to, Bart finds he has a facility for songwriting. He makes no claim to his compositions being “high art”, but he knows he can put together a hit song whenever required.
Scott adroitly tells Bart’s story and performs many of the songs from Oliver! (including “Reviewing the Situation” and shortened versions of “Oom Pah Pah”, “It’s a Fine Life” and “Consider Yourself”) as well as hit songs Bart wrote for Cliff Richard (“Living Doll”) and Tommy Steele (“Little White Bull”), and the theme from the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love.
Scott’s performance is impeccable and, as ever, his dexterity at the piano is a marvel to behold. As familiar as he has become over his many years on Australian stages and on TV, in this show he is Lionel Bart. There are plenty of laughs, but also some poignant sections, especially when Bart talks about his sexuality: he was gay, but remained closeted for most of his life. In light of this knowledge, “As Long As He Needs Me” – perhaps the ultimate torch song – takes on an extra layer of heartbreak for the audience.
Reviewing the Situation is a great way to spend an hour at the theatre – a very classy production that tells a good story in a most entertaining way.