More? You want more?

March 2, 2015 | By More

SLO considers itself at home at King’s

“More? You want how many more?” – not Mr Bumble’s reply to Oliver Twist’s plea for more gruel, but how Southern Light Opera must have reacted to director Andy Johnston’s plans for their new production of Oliver!, which opens at the King’s on Tuesday.

But unlike young Twist, Andy Johnston got what he wanted and this week’s show promises to be the biggest amateur production of Oliver! that Edinburgh has ever seen.

Oliver and Dodger. Photo by Scott Parker

Oliver and Dodger. Photo: Scott Parker

Size is not everything, of course. But given Johnston’s credentials as a director on Edinburgh’s amateur scene, you know there’s more than a good chance that all those voices will be put to very good use.

The total numbers really are impressive – 120 children to cry “all we ever get is gruel” in Food Glorious Food or pick a pocket or two with Fagin – and 60 adults to ensure that everything from Who Will Buy to Oom Pah Pah goes off with a bang.

The lad who will be asking for more this week is Alex Morrison who plays Oliver. And it is not just his character who wants more, but Alex himself.

“I can’t wait to get on stage at the King’s,” says the 11 year-old, who took to the Playhouse stage recently for the big touring production of Calamity Jane staring Jason Donovan. “Rehearsals have been great fun and I’ve made lots of friends.”

Based on Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel Oliver Twist, the musical tells the story of the orphan who dared to ask for more gruel. Mr Bumble, the Workhouse boss, is so incensed that he sells Oliver to the local undertaker. But the lad runs away to London where he is befriended by The Artful Dodger and soon finds himself being trained to pick pockets for villainous Fagin.

Oliver! itself is rather less dark than Dickens’ original. He might have been writing fiction, but it was based on the reality of child labour and underground gangs which he saw around him London.

But that doesn’t mean that Andy Johnston is going to waver from the ethos of Lionel Bart’s musical, which first opened in 1960 and has been breaking records ever since. It is, as he says, one of the greatest musicals ever written.

big and bold

Johnston told Æ: “I have read about other companies saying they will make it a darker and more realistic piece of theatre, perhaps more in keeping with what Dickens originally intended, but I don’t think that is necessary – it has been one of the most successful shows in history for a reason.

“All we have been working on is taking what is in the script and making sure it is big and bold enough to justify being on the King’s stage and I think we have done that. We have worked very hard making the comedy more comedic and the drama as dramatic as possible.”

Oliver, Fagin and Dodger. Photo: Scott Parker

Oliver, Fagin and Dodger. Photo: Scott Parker

Which is not to say that he and Musical Director David McFarlane aren’t prepared to tinker with the basic underlying elements of the show, as it was written for performing in the West End in an era when stage mechanics were a little more unwieldy.

“You get various bits of underscoring and things which probably made sense when you had a huge moving set with a bridge and everything,” Johnston says. “Nowadays you don’t have that, and not on our budget, so you have to tailor the music to what you are doing.

“We have spent a lot of time editing it down, sorting it out, listening to the 2009 production from Drury Lane, going back to 1994 with Cameron Mackintosh’s production from the London Palladium, listening to the changes they made to adapt those. Ours is an amalgam of ideas that have been done throughout the yeas to Oliver!.”

heartfelt drama and high comedy

So what is it in particular which sets Oliver! apart from the rest of musical gang and made the show such an enduring success?

“Perhaps it is this delicate balance between heartfelt drama and high comedy,” Johnston suggests. “Dickens created such a brilliant cast of memorable characters and that, allied with Lionel Bart’s unforgettable music, is pure gold dust.

“I have often stated that the last half hour of Act 1 – the scenes with Fagin, Nancy, Bet and the Gang – is probably one of the greatest sequences in musical theatre. The great songs just keep on coming – Pick A Pocket, It’s a Fine Life, I’d Do Anything, Be Back Soon – sometimes with only a few lines of dialogue in between.

“And that’s before you even consider classics such as As Long As He Needs Me and Reviewing The Situation.”

Oliver! has only been staged once before at the King’s, in 2002 by the Bohemians. And although it is well over 50 years old, as Johnston says with a laugh, that is quite modern for Southern Light.

And in the company’s attempts to make this the biggest, brightest, best Oliver! there has ever been in Edinburgh, it has drawn its performers from a very wide net.

“There are people playing lead parts in this who have been in Southern Light for a long time, in some cases 50 years,” says Johnson. “But I also have people I’ve only worked with once – in Allegro last year.

“I also have lots of people who have worked with Gang Show throughout the years, it is really an amalgam of talented people from around Edinburgh that have come together to do this great show.

“There are over 140 young people taking part – many of whom have never appeared on stage before. Hopefully they will all enjoy the experience and become the Southern Light of the future.”

Listing

Oliver!
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 3 – Saturday 7 March 2015.
Daily 7.30pm, Sat Mat: 2.30pm.Tickets and further details from: http://www.edtheatres.com/oliver

ENDS

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