Aaron Ford as Oliver and Marcelina Grenda as Mrs Bedwin in Oliver! – all photos © Mark Cotter
‘Consider yourself – one of the family’ We all know the tunes from Lionel Bart’s hit musical Oliver! It has been a much-loved and popular show since it was premiered in 1960 and many of the characters and songs have become icons of British culture.
Director Anna Lawrence chose this classic musical to give an opportunity for younger age groups to experience the complexities of staging musical theatre and the younger performers joined their older school colleagues in rising magnificently to the challenge. Six months of rehearsal means that the young cast are confident and nuanced in their roles, with several outstanding performances.
Estranged from his middle class family orphan Oliver finds himself in a Yorkshire workhouse, semi starved on a diet of sloppy gruel and hard punishment, yet he has more spirit than some of his fellow orphans. Famously he is the boy who asks for more, only to find himself packed off to work for a grim undertaker. Escaping from the horrors of this slavery he heads for London and falls in with the Artful Dodger and Fagin’s gang of underage thieves.
Chance brings him into contact with a Mr Brownlow, as he attempts his very first theft from him. Brownlow turns out to have rather closer connection to Oliver than expected, and the tussles over who Oliver belongs to build the drama of the show.
Dickens wrote some wonderfully sparkling characters for the original novel Oliver Twist, and these archetypal personalities both reflect the time of the story and give it great stage appeal. In Fagin’s London underworld we have the heartless villain Bill Sykes and his girlfriend Nancy, performed with great skill and stage presence by Hollie Nichols. Laurence Doy gives us a Bill Sykes who almost sounds too posh to be a thug, but leaves the audience in no doubt about how evil his character is.
Making undertakers fun is a tough challenge but Rhys Corder and Elly Jarrett as Mr and Mrs Sowerberry give an almost Tim Burton fantasy to their workshop with clever physical comedy on a very tight stage.
Aaron Ford is a perfect Oliver, young enough to melt our hearts with a quavering voice just right for the embattled youngster as he is passed from one hazard to another.
Many of the younger ensemble members of the cast are given a moment to shine in this production with little vignettes that add hugely to the pleasure for the audience. Their timings are all spot-on and their joy in performing is self evident.
The role of Artful Dodger is great fun, and again another wonderful Dickens creation. From her first moment on stage Emma Smith, with an ear-to-ear smile, makes it very clear why she is perfectly cast as the Dodger, taking the naive Oliver under his wing to join Fagin’s bunch of rapscallions and ruffians.
Fitting 54 lively youngsters on to a fairly small school hall stage without mishap is a triumph of choreography and stagecraft, and Director Anna Lawrence makes good use of all the spaces in and around the hall, with a splendid 12-piece orchestra tucked into a corner too. Professional theatre is marked by skilled timing and pacing but I have seen a few prestigious productions that could learn a lot from the Sprowston High School squad.
Star for me and many of tonight’s audience is undoubtedly Karl Gilbert as Fagin. Lionel Bart wrote some great songs and dialogue (and monologue) for Fagin but Karl brings a distinctive and charismatic character to life with a detailed, energetic and charming performance that gives us a Fagin as memorable as those of the great names of theatre who have played him before.
The Sprowston Oliver! is above all a great team effort. Everyone who is on stage or contributed to this charming show has the right to feel very proud of their achievements. There are no distracting lapses of concentration or awkward moments in a fast-paced musical that sends everybody home with a big smile.
Oliver! plays at Sprowston High School until Saturday 4th March, with a matinee and evening performance – catch it if you can!