If you were watching I’d Do Anything on BBC1 on Saturday night, you’ll know that the part of Nancy in Cameron Mackintosh’s new West End production of the musical Oliver! has been carried off by 28-year-old Blackpool native Jodie Prenger.
Although Jodie was naturally thrilled to win the talent competition, I can’t help thinking that her victory must have been soured a little by the fact that both Mackintosh and judge Andrew Lloyd Webber made it abundantly clear that they preferred her 18-year-old rival, Irish Jessie Buckley. Since the final was decided entirely by public votes, however, the two theatrical bigwigs could only look on as the audience made the decision first to eliminate 17-year-old contestant Samantha Barks, and then Jessie – leaving Jodie triumphant.
The first part of the final, which would see the remaining three contestants reduced to two, featured solo performances from all the girls. First up was Jodie with a rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” in which she seemed a bit nervous and restrained to me, although she did deliver by the end. Webber, displaying a lack of prophetic vision (or perhaps just indulging in wishful thinking) said that he questioned whether it was a winning performance. But judge John Barrowman (who has become increasingly vocal about his anti-Jessie stance) insisted that you always believed in Jodie when she sang the words of a song – a judgment I would agree with.
Next up was Sam, with the Dionne Warwick song “Anyone Who Had A Heart.” Interestingly enough, this song was performed by contestant Siobhan Dillon in the final of the previous BBC talent competition How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and she, like Sam, was the first of the final three to go. It seems to me like a very tricky song to perform if you’re trying to prove that you can act and show vulnerability (which Sam was). Although the lyrics seem to indicate sadness and longing, there’s a campiness to the music that makes it difficult to really dig deep into any emotion. Since acting was never Sam’s strong point anyway, this song may have been what helped to do her in.
Finally, Jessie performed the Roberta Flack tune, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I’ve tended to think that Jessie does better at connecting emotionally with a song than Sam – she does at least have something behind the eyes – but her rendition here seemed to me to be overly mannered and stagy. Nevertheless, both Mackintosh and Webber gave her performance rave reviews. Mackintosh said that “I think Jessie was born to play Nancy,” while Webber said that “Jessie has the sacred flame of star quality.” Either they really like Jessie, or they just really, really didn’t want Jodie to win. In either case, their comments just seemed bizarre to me – while I think Jessie is attractive and has potential, “sacred flame” and “star quality” just aren’t phrases I would use in connection with her.
Admittedly, I probably enjoyed her duet the most out of the three Oliver/Nancy pairings that followed. But that had less to do with Jessie than the fact that she was paired with adorable Welsh, Gwion, one of the three boys who have already been selected by Webber and Mackintosh to share the role of Oliver. Singing ‘Truly Scrumptious” from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Gwion was natural, relaxed and smiley, and … well, adorable and Welsh. As the judges pointed out, he and Jessie did have chemistry together (although I thought it was more like the chemistry an older sister would have with a younger brother, rather than the maternal chemistry Nancy should have with Oliver). Nevertheless, Jessie seemed a bit distracted to me, and again a bit over the top:
Samantha’s duet with Harry, “Singin’ in the Rain,” was fine but a bit blah. Singing “Getting to Know You” from The King & I with Laurence, I thought Jodie did the best of the three girls – being a bit older, she just naturally has a maternal air that Sam and Jessie haven’t acquired yet. She also seemed to concentrate on and connect with her duet partner the most, rather than singing predominantly to the audience as Sam and Jessie did.
Next up was another highly enjoyable bit, as the three girls were shown rehearsing the Cabaret song “Maybe This Time” with none other than Liza Minnelli, before performing it live for the audience. Watching the rehearsal footage, the main thing that struck me was how incredibly nice, helpful and down-to-earth Liza Minnelli seems. With three young reality TV contestants trying to live up to one of her most legendary performances, you might conceivably expect her to be a bit standoffish – but in fact she seemed genuinely interested in all the girls. She also came off as insightful, saying to Webber of Jodie, “She’s the eldest … so she knows more about that kind of a feeling [expressed in the song]”:
The end of this first part of the final saw Sam voted off, as might have been expected. It also saw guest star Lee Mead – the winner of previous BBC talent competition, Any Dream Will Do, which cast him as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – say that Jodie was his favorite of the three Nancys.
Nevertheless, Mackintosh and Webber were still waving the flag hard for Jessie when she and Jodie returned for the half-hour showdown. Mackintosh even went so far as to say that “Jessie is Nancy” – leaving him to look rather foolish when it turned out that, in fact, the public had voted for Jodie. (His hasty speaking also seemed, in the long run, rather cruel to Jessie, who was understandably upset at the result after having her hopes raised so high.)
Although I know there are a lot of Jessie fans on this site, I admit that I was rooting for Jodie – she simply seemed much closer to having the life experience, battle-scars, warmth and maternal side that Nancy needs. With that said, and although I do think she’s been a competent and consistent performer, I don’t find her as inspiring and outstanding as I would like to. If anything does get me to the West End to see the show in six months time, it will probably be Gwion.
What about you? Were you pleased or disappointed with the result? And will you be going to see the show?