Like the leading character in Lionel Bart's family musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novel, Oliver Twist, we were all left wanting ‘more’ after watching this heavily populated, fast-paced, well-dressed and busy production, featuring over 230 young local talents (aged 9-18) in the seventh year of this acclaimed summer scheme.
This slick and seamless production – superbly directed by Tony Finnegan, with top-notch musical direction by Wilson Shields and his small band (accompanied by a small youth band) and some truly wonderful choreography by Rebecca Leonard – was easily the brightest, most colourful and visually stunning stage presentation of the show yet (almost to the point that Oliver may not have borrowed Joseph’s famous theatrical coat, but certainly borrowed its many colours to make this usually dark show more family friendly).
Finnegan has always had a reputation for having children in most of his shows, but appears to have set a new record for the sheer number of them here and he certainly used them all to good and equal effect by using as many of the ensemble when and where possible.
With so many under his wing, his direction, by necessity, was always firm and decisive and I loved his approach of having cast actions in place as distractions during the major scene changes, while his other trademark of paying attention to detail was always evident with the use of echo, sound effects (a cat and twittering birds), working wall lights on the set and children in the work house actually ‘working’ in the opening scene.
Sometimes, having a few adults playing more senior roles in youth productions is preferable to either older children or young adults taking on the roles (it is more believable or realistic), but – because of the sheer volume of children involved and the vast range in ages, it really worked here with young adults in all of the leading roles and, in no small way, this was down to the talents of the well-cast principals, who were uniformly good at acting and singing and with that rare ability not only to do an accent but also to maintain it.
So, full marks to all of the principals: Luke Fields (Oliver) and Conor Cox (Artful Dodger) – and I have no doubt that Andrew Montgomery and Sam Gibson will be equally as good when they share these roles in subsequent performances – Tommy Bell, Emiko Seawright, Conor Headley, Jordan Rosborough, Katie Shortt, Patrick Connor, Niamh Thompson, Lauren McCormick, Boaz Hughes and Adam Dilworth.
With the new orchestrations, musical highlights numbered many and I felt that the outstanding unison in both choral work and overall choreographed movement during Food Glorious Food reflected the high standards of both disciplines throughout this production, while Who Will Buy? threw up perfect harmonies and the effective and mood-setting violin during Reviewing The Situation was excellent.
Played out on a multi level set with back wall projection, this show was good in all departments and boasted good and inventive use of props in the choreographed routines, which were totally impressive throughout (I particularly liked the clever use of the ensemble as funeral horses).
A major key to the success here was the excellent lighting plot, which was used well to minimise scene changes and complemented movement throughout to create perfect visual pictures, although one small criticism is that I felt the lighting could have been a bit darker and more sinister during Bill Sykes’ song, My Name, to highlight the threatening mood inspired by the character and his song.
The only annoying thing about the opening night performance was audience members trying to clap along to Reviewing The Situation, which doesn’t work.
Future audiences take note – don’t clap along to a song with an ever changing tempo (or, I may have to get Bill Sykes for you!).
However, with a production as good as this, it is no surprise that Oliver asked for 'more'!!
Grand Opera House Summer Youth Project
Grand Opera House, Belfast
Thu 27-Sat 29 Jul, 2017