Review: Oliver! in a school’s production that any professionals would be proud of

Oliver!  by Bede's School at Devonshire Park Theatre
Oliver! by Bede's School at Devonshire Park Theatre

So Bede’s School bring Oliver to the Devonshire Park Theatre: a full auditorium, a whiff of popcorn rather than gin and tonic, and a cast and audience united in happy celebration. Nights at the theatre should always be like this.

Taking school productions into public theatres can be a risky adventure, and at worst, just a vanity project. Overawed youngsters, and a large bill for the school bursar. Not so for this excellent Oliver: Director of Drama Karen Lewis, with an expert creative team, fully exploits the theatre’s resources and possibilities, and the end product feels really professional.

Oliver! at the Devonshire Park Theatre performed by Bede's School

Oliver! at the Devonshire Park Theatre performed by Bede's School

Bede’s have pedigree. The last Devonshire Park venture was a startling, inventive Into the Woods which Sondheim himself would have enjoyed, and just last summer Director of Drama Karen Lewis took the school’s Tartuffe to the Edinburgh Festival. This show only enhances the school’s reputation.

Indeed, any flaws lie not with the production but with the show itself. Heresy to suggest it, for Lionel Bart’s classic work is in or near to musical theatre’s top ten; but its structure is odd and unbalanced, and its juxtaposition of comedy and heavyweight story is never quite comfortable.

No worries. This young company, endlessly energetic and frighteningly talented, cheerfully smashes through the theatrical glass ceiling, and the end product is great.

Karen’s concept is imaginative and stylised, always just a little larger than life, and seldom grimly realistic. Against a shadowy and slightly expressionistic background, the orphans emerge like mice from the skirting board. Their gleeful feistiness has a hint of Annie as well as Oliver, and it works. Bart has pitched the opening number Food Glorious Food cruelly high, but the ensemble singing is bold and confident.

Oliver! at the Devonshire Park Theatre performed by Bede's School

Oliver! at the Devonshire Park Theatre performed by Bede's School

The next twenty minutes give great scope for a string of fine cameos: Will Hopkins is a nicely buffoonish Bumble opposite Imogen Hooker’s cackling Mrs Corney, while Max Mason and Lotte Simmons are a delicious, malicious pair of Sowerberrys – with Freddie Tuson and Adelaide Barden the children from Hell. Their angular pas de deux in That’s Your Funeral is almost Charles Dickens through a Tim Burton prism, garish and nightmarish.

And at the centre of this bewildering world, Leo Wynne-Williams is an impressive Oliver – not the frequent portrayal of a tiny and cowering victim but aware, quite resilient, almost impudent – and with a super, lyrical singing voice in Where is Love. Very well done.

Arriving in London, Oliver is suddenly surrounded by the swirl of colourful criminality which is Fagin’s Gang. A few things have changed since Bart’s 1960s, so the apprentice pickpockets are a happy mix of genders, and Oliver even manages a quick fist-bump with George Lewis’s briskly assertive Dodger! But the youngsters still capture that mix of chutzpah and collective fear that Bart intended.

At their centre, in all senses, is a quite magnificent Fagin. An elastic-limbed Tom McGovern has every gesture, every knowing and darting glance, every prancing step exactly right. Both speaking and singing, he is the essence of Fagin, and his tiny moment of homage to Ron Moody at the very end is entirely apt. The finest Fagin, youth or adult, that I have witnessed for many years.

By now, the show is in full swing, and the set pieces are fabulous. Consider Yourself – which Bart really should have turned into a Finale Act One – is a triumphant blaze of choreographed colour, and Be Back Soon, which does take us to the interval, is full of Cockney cheer.

As Nancy, Meghan Longden wins our hearts and her vocals are awesome, with an authentic belt, while Lili Longden – sisters, I presume? - is a sweet, engaging Bet. Jonny Keegan is a genuinely terrifying, explosive Sykes, shocking a youngish and enthusiastic audience into stunned silence with his roar.

In the second half, there is an awful lot of story to be told, and the narrative feels a bit clunky – again, no fault of the company or the direction. Louis Muston, Charlotte Webb and Matthew Moloney handle the Brownlow scenes skilfully, and suddenly we are skeltering towards the high drama of the finale.

The creatives, no doubt, will be happy to let the youngsters take the credit. But alongside Karen Lewis, Robert Scamardella directs a breezy and note-perfect band, including a deserved spotlight for Fiddler in the Pit Conor Woodbridge. Bob Bryan’s lighting is superbly atmospheric, and Richard Waring’s set design perfectly combines the imaginative with the practical.

A schools production? Yes, but one that professionals would be proud of. By Kevin Anderson.