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Celebrating Lionel Bart (JW3)

(seen on 7th July 2024)

Lionel Bart
Michaela Stern / Jos Slovic / Brady Isaacs Pearce

At the opening night of “Whistle Down The Wind” at London’s Aldwych Theatre, the show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber brought his two young sons over to Lionel Bart, who was seated in the stalls. “Mr Bart,” Lloyd Webber explained, “I wanted my sons to meet personally the father of British Musical Theatre.”

“Oliver!” is Lionel Bart’s biggest stage hit, but we never forget that he wrote – simply by humming songs to a transcriber who could write music – a vast string of hit numbers associated with pop stars (and Abbey National Building Society) still sung regularly today.

Children of the monkey’s era will remember the opening song of the evening “Handful Of Songs” as the theme tune to the ITV lunchtime kid’s show of the same name.

Performed here by Jos Slovic, looking every inch a “Bart Boy” in flat cap and with perky street attitude, we are instantly reminded Bart wrote “new songs and blue songs and songs to bring you happiness” with “street vendor cries, strains of old refrains" and even “sleepy time baby lullabies.”

With Musical Director Theo Jamieson at the piano, and a microphone, Slovic is just the first of five wonderful performers to interpret beautifully works by this musical genius, born Lionel Begleiter to Ukranian refugees living in Stepney, East London.

Tommy Steele reminiscing on video about meeting Bart by a Yellow Door on a bomb site in Waterloo just after the war, and how Bart could write a song faster than it could be sung, cued one of his finest.

“Where Is Love” from “Oliver!” allowed the very young and talented Brady Isaacs Pearce her first heartfelt hit of the night, wondering where her mother may hide.

From a child wondering about their mother, to a mother worrying the heavens for her child. “So Tell Me” from “Blitz” is a plea for a daughter blinded by shrapnel. Debbie Chazen, on best Jewish Mother form, breaks hearts; surely making a case for a professional London fringe or concert-version revival of the show soon (with this cast, if possible).

Brady Isaacs Pearce followed with effective “Far Away,” a song from the second storyline of the show as a young woman yearns for her soldier boyfriend away at war.

More video surprises, as Cliff Richard recorded a piece explaining how Bart’s “Living Doll” was re-arranged by his Shadows backing group to become the smash hit classic we know and love. With Nigel Planer singing it here, wonderfully relaxed in a maroon jacket, his foot tapped as the audience palms twitched to clap along.

With Planer already holding the audience captive, it was an easy jump into “Reviewing The Situation” from “Oliver!,” brilliantly inserting a little Yiddish into the lyric.

He also shared with us the true story of how a lady called Eliza Davis caused Dickens himself to “review the situation” over his treatment of Jewish people in “Oliver Twist.” Her letter caused Dickens to create a positive Jewish character in “Our Mutual Friend,” and revise the second printing of “Oliver Twist” too. Strange follow up is that Davis’s husband ended up purchasing Dickens’s house some years later.

Moving on, and learning that Rex Harrison, Sid James and Peter Sellers had all turned down Fagin in the role, and Ron Moody wasn’t Bart’s choice at all, we had a quick marvel that Moody took the role in the end for £85 a week.

Those wages truly prove that “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be,” the song from the show of the same title to close act one. Jos Slovic and Michaela Stern (in a terrific two-colour outfit) fortunately 'kept it clean' with the Max Bygraves version, rather than the considerably stronger original stage lyric - from a show one critic described as “’Guys and Dolls’ with its flies open.”

Second half, quick “Handful of Songs” instrumental from Theo Jamieson, before an unexpected highlight of the evening – two numbers from unproduced show “Next Year In Jerusalem,” intended by Bart and collaborator Roger Cook to be a biography of Golda Meir.

Debbie Chazen, singing first the title number, reassures her daughter that there will be something better after the pogroms they are enduring. The title is said at the end of every Passover Seder (the ritual meal and service on the first two nights of the festival) and is a phrase of hope in the faith.

Michaela Stern followed it with “Nobody In Particular,” a wife’s remonstrations with an errant husband. Acted to perfection and strong emotional effect on all, including the singer.

A glowing video tribute from Anita Harris lead us into one of the monkey’s favourite 1960s songs, “Do You Mind.” A cheeky conversational number, revealing the chat-up banter and mutual respect the sexes had for each other in those days, Jos Slovic revived the happy vibe after the more serious spell.

Everybody is entitled to a dream, and Debbie Chazen apparently wants to be a Bond Girl. Taking a crack at “From Russia With Love,” on this evidence there should at least be a nightclub singer’s role in the next movie for her.

Back to Joan Littlewood’s “Fings” as innocent Brady Isaacs Pearce re-created Littlewood’s original vision. Sitting on a wooden stool, hands under her, singing “Where Do Little Birds Go” directly into a microphone. Like Barbara Windsor, she stopped the show.

The song is, of course, about the street-walkers of Soho, but sung so sweetly, the double-entendres land ever harder punches with every line.

More finest Bart heart-breakers with Michaela Stern giving Shani Wallis (and indeed Helen Shapiro, whom the monkey first saw in the role) more than a run for their money as Nancy in “Oliver!” with “As Long As He Needs Me.” Between acted and a touch of cabaret, the accent was flawless and unforced, each note emotional.

Closing the evening, audience joined the company for a roof-raising “Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be” – lyrics provided on screen. A finale Lionel Bart, with his deep love of people and entertaining everyone with a tune, would have loved.

5 stars.

The show is one of a series at this venue, the next being about American composer and conductor Marvin Hamlisch on 3rd November 2024. More details at

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