Can Sheffield Crucible repeat the success of last year’s major musical hit Christmas show? Arts editor Nick Ahad finds out if it can with Oliver!
“AT times, it’s sheer crowd control,” admits Daniel Evans.
He’s at the helm of what promises to be a spectacular production, a Christmas show that will bring people into his theatre this winter in droves, yet sometimes directing Oliver! the musical – is little more than crowd control.
“We’ve got so many people involved in a small room downstairs (in the Crucible Theatre) there’s 60 in the cast, the production team – there’s over 100 people involved,” he says.
“I’m not a director who has ever shouted, I’m just not like that. But for the first time I am having to shout in the rehearsal room just to make myself heard.”
Last year the Crucible’s Christmas show was a major hit for the theatre. My Fair Lady was a slow burner, ticket sales were going well, but not spectacularly. Then the show opened. The reviews hit the stands and suddenly it was the hottest ticket in town.
Evans doesn’t care about that.
“We can’t look back to what we did last year, that doesn’t matter now,” he says.
“Now we have to concentrate on making this year’s show the best it can be.”
He’s chosen a good one to follow up last year’s major success.
Oliver! is a perennial favourite. It can also be something of a risk. A Christmas show, for many theatres is the one that really makes the money – they rely on their festive season to fill ever dwindling coffers for the rest of the year, so the responsibility on the shoulders of a show at this time of year is significant. The issue with Oliver! is that you can’t help but put that responsibility on the shoulders of children.
“Unless you’re going to do a very weird version, then there’s no getting away from the fact that you have to have a lot of kids in the cast,” says Evans. “Fortunately, we’ve found some absolutely briliant young people from Sheffield to play the parts of the children in the show.”
Unusually in Evans’ production, the workhouse will be populated by both girls and boys, young actors mainly from around Sheffield. They will be joined on stage by 22 professional adult actors who play the principal parts.
It’s clearly exhausting work, even for Evans, who often appears to have the energy that should have gone to ten men. It is also, he says when we meet in the middle of the rehearsals, the sort of work that brings him massive rewards.
“It takes a lot of time – the first two weeks are a lot of hard work, getting them in the right frame of mind and working really hard on getting them to just start doing what we need them to do,” he says.
“But then you hit a point – and we got there this week – where they turn a corner and you can see them really start to just run with the piece.”
A massive attraction of course to staging this production is the brilliant music written by Lionel Bart. Based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Bart took liberties and turned it into a heart-warming, uplifting musical with songs written with his gift for crafting music which was virtually impossible not to sing along to.
Consider Yourself, You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, I’d Do Anything, Who Will Buy – they were songs crafted by a man who essentially spent his life banging out tunes for folk to sing to in London pubs. It gave Bart an ear for a catchy tune, but also the honed sense of a storyteller – it is rare in theatre to have a musical that has music, lyrics and story written by a single person, but the singular vision of Bart created a one-off that continues to be loved by millions, thanks to a famous 1968 movie adaptation.
Evans is aware that the music is a major attraction and all the songs audiences know and love will be there – but he is not going to shy away from the darkness the piece is infused by, thanks to Dickens’ source material.
“The truth is, we now live in a post-Operation Yewtree world,” he says.
“And something like that makes you look at theatre differently. When you look at Oliver! today, the darkness of the fact that Fagin is actually grooming these young boys – grooming them to be his gang of thieves – can’t be ignored.
“What happens to Nancy is awful, there is a definite darkness to this piece, and you can’t shy away from that, because that is an important part of the piece.”
Before you start thinking, however, that the Crucible is going to be all doom and gloom, Evans isn’t planning on staging a miseryfest this Christmas.
“Ultimately the story is about love.
“Oliver is a representation of love and the way everyone reacts to him is because of this pure love that he seems to represent.”
Youngsters take the lead in Oliver!
Leading the company bringing Oliver! to the stage are Tom Edden (Fagin), Hayley Gallivan (Nancy) and Ben Richards (Bill Sikes).
But the boys who will be at the centre of the show, discovered through a lengthy audition process this year are Adam Samual Bailey (age 12) and Jack Skilbeck-Dunn (age 11) who will share the title role of Oliver Twist, with Jack Armstrong (age 13) and Travis Caddy (age 14) alternating as the Artful Dodger.
Oliver! Sheffield Crucible, tonight to Jan 25. Tickets from £17, on 0114 249 6000 or on www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk