Oliver! – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

Oliver-prod2

Image: Graeme Braidwood

Bart’s beloved adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel is a firm favourite with young and old alike, and a stock production for youth theatres across the globe.  It is, therefore, a challenge for any theatre company to produce an Oliver! that is both distinctive and freshly entertaining, but the Royal & Derngate Young Company and Youth Theatre have struck it rich, and didn’t even have “to pick a pocket or two”.

Effectively holding the attention of the audience, by simple virtue of their unwavering energy and raw talent, the company tell the tale of the young Oliver Twist with clarity and enthusiasm. From the screams of Oliver’s mother as she collapses on stage about to give birth, to the raucous Food, Glorious Food, sung by a company of talented performers as young as eight years old, the opening scenes immediately captivate the interest, and it just continues from there.

With all the trappings of Dickensian London: poverty, cruelty, crime, corruption, and murder, not to mention the vast chasm between rich and poor that punctuates the story, Oliver! is as fascinating today as it was in the mid-19th Century, when Dickens first published it, and in 1960 when the musical premiered in the West End.

The immediately recognisable, utterly hummable tunes echo harmoniously around the auditorium, as every single chorus is sung with gusto and, perhaps surprisingly for an amateur youth production, almost always in tune. The solo performances are equally strong, and Musical Director James Clements has worked in a number of particularly beautiful moments between actor and orchestra to deliver something extra special. Notably, the hilarious ‘conversation’ between Fagin and one over-eager violinist, offers a comical depth to an already stunning solo performance by Luke Nunn (Fagin).

There are very few weak performances, and there are some particularly notable talents. Lauren Moody offers an iridescent and characterful performance as Nancy, and Ryan McLean’s Bumble, despite being fairly unconvincing as an old, fat man (but then that’s pretty impossible when you are under 21 years of age), is effortlessly comical and a delight to watch. The young boy in the title role (Curtis Sloan) has a cheeky innocence about him that is truly captivating, and even Sikes’ dog, Bullseye, played by Blue Morgan, owns the stage whenever he’s on it.

Carl Davies’ set is essentially two sets of stairs with a central balcony, but by simply moving wooden benches and boxes around, and flying in objects from above, it transforms from a dreary workhouse, to Fagin’s colourful den of iniquity, and then to Mr Brownlow’s affluent home. Coupled with some effective sound and lighting from James Delamere and Andy Cox, the frenzied hunt for Bill Sikes, and Fagin’s poignant exit, are truly evocative.

With such a bunch of highly talented and enthusiastic young performers, you get the impression [They]’d Do Anything to put a smile on the faces of the audience, and they definitely succeed. Despite the plethora of Oliver!s that have preceded it, Christopher Elmer-Gorry’s production is anything but samey, and far from uninteresting.  While still retaining the comfortable familiarity of Bart’s epic musical, the pure passion and joy in this company’s performance means that this production of Oliver!feels wonderfully fresh and new.

Four stars

I saw Oliver! at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, Leicester on 14th July 2016

The Reviews Hub

Originally written for http://www.thereviewshub.com and reproduced here with their permission

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