Lionel Bart himself, or a portrait of him at least, brings the stories behind his music to life in this beautifully poignant production starring Phil Scott. Playing Bart with a thick cockney accent (complete with soft ‘r’s) Scott embodies the composer in the latter portion of his life, when he’d misspent his fortune and was living in a flat above a dry-cleaners in Acton.
Kicking off the show with a round of ‘Oom Pah Pah’ of course this production includes a large amount of music from Bart’s most celebrated work, the classic musical Oliver! However, the difference in hearing these much-loved tunes coming from the mouth of their composer means we get to learn so much more about their inception and perhaps true meaning. For example, re-hearing ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ knowing that Bart was a publicly closeted gay man for most of his life allows Scott to emphasise the silent pain of a man whose relationship woes were unable to be shared.
Together with director Terence O’Connell, Scott has co-written a beautifully balanced tale that is both heart-breakingly touching and mirthfully charming. Learning that Bart wrote Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ and the title track from James Bond flick From Russia With Love make this production unexpectedly educative and additionally varying as well.
All O’Connell and Scott use to create the feeling of Bart’s dingy flat are a chair, side-table and bottle of Tanqueray… oh, and of course, a baby grand. O’Connell ensures that Scott isn’t stuck to the piano and makes use of the other furniture to break up Bart’s anecdotes, give Scott a thirst quencher and punctuate the more anguished stories.
Besides Oliver! Bart also penned the cockney comedy Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be and the charming WWII musical Blitz! providing the setting for some delightful tales about Barbara Windsor and Vera Lynn. Mention of ‘The Forces’ Sweetheart’ also prompts a performance within the performance as Scott plays Bart playing Vera Lynn, as he mimics her performance of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ an homage from Blitz! to her nostalgic war-era songs.
Further tales from Bart’s halcyon days in the 1960s generate name dropping encounters regarding Judy Garland, Noel Coward and our own Barry Humphries. But Bart’s love for exclamation pointed titles lead him down a fateful path with Twang!! a musical based on the Robin Hood tale and a project the composer was so determined to have succeed that he sunk £200,000 of his own money into it, earned from selling his rights to Oliver! away.
It’s the beginning of a slippery slope towards unhappily bankrupt twilight years, with only a few glimmers of joy, such as when Cameron Mackintosh gave him a percentage of the profits of his 1994 Oliver! revival.
To the strains of ‘Be Back Soon’ we sadly say goodbye too soon to Lionel Bart and a thoroughly touching and entertaining performance from Phil Scott.