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Review of Oliver! by R&D Youth Theatre at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

Two years ago this week, I saw for the first time the older faction of the Royal & Derngate Youth Theatre perform Sweeney Todd (I had seen one month before the younger part create the delightful Honk!). While a quite brilliant level of standard has continued in their productions since, nothing has quite reached that optimum point of Sweeney for me. Oliver! is their latest production and this epic scale show merges all of the age groups together to create a spellbinding piece of youthful and lively theatre that is rightfully packing the auditorium like no R&D youth show before.

I have to say straight up that Oliver! does not beat the legend that is Sweeney for me, however it comes as close as we have ever been to doing so. A lot of this perhaps is down to my personal taste and Sweeney's two stunning leads, which have yet to be bettered. The macabre nature of Sweeney also gelled with me and Lionel Bart's tale, despite being packed with more known tunes than seems possible for one musical to have, doesn't quite beat it in my mind.
Owen Howard as The Artful Dodger and Curtis Sloan as Oliver Twist
Oliver! is being performed by two slightly different casts across its eight performances, with a couple of the key roles, Oliver himself and Nancy being the most prominent. Cleverly named the waifs and strays, this review revolves around the official opening night of the waifs performances.

Lead waif, Oliver Twist is played by the highly talented Curtis Sloan, creating the often played character in his own way and garnering many pleasing murmurings from the crowd during his solo centerpiece number Where Is Love? He mostly looks the part in his rags and latter riches costume (all wonderfully created by the background team at R&D), however I fear in my own mind Master Twist is a little shorter.
Lauren Moody as Nancy and Ethan Kelly as Bill Sykes
At the other dramatic end of the age scale, we have the old Youth Theatre regular Ryan Mclean and his very impressive take on Mr Bumble, adding once again his own take with a nice play of the comedy element and a gentle dour edge as well. Creating much more depth than is often seen as a somewhat one dimensional figure of fun. His rather wonderful duet with Widow Corney (Phoebe Armstrong) on I Shall Scream is a unexpected delight from the show.

Owen Howard, who is also an extremely reliable performer with the company, brings a lively presence to The Artful Dodger, with all the relevant cocky absurdness that the character requires. There is a neat little twist to the undertaker characters of Mrs Sowerberry and Ms Sowerberry as both become ladies. Played by Emma-Ann Cranston and Isla Fleury, they create a huge amount of amusement out of their brief partnership on stage, with a wicked rendition of That's Your Funeral and a perfect comical faint from Emma-Ann. Lauren Moody creates the iconic character of Nancy with wonderful emotion and has one of the strongest voices of the performers on stage, never better during her quite brilliant It's A Fine Life, full of the strong cockney dialect to boot.
Luke Nunn as Fagin and company
Finally the actor with the greatest task is that of Luke Nunn and the timeless role of Fagin. Challenged with not only acting countless years beyond his age, holding a strong accent and performing some of the most famous musical songs ever, he appears to relish every moment. It is a quite amazing performance and he never drops out of character once. He also has the most magical moment of the production with a simply outstandingly inspired exchange with the lone violinist during his performance of Reviewing The Situation. It truly is brilliantly pitched and a standout moment not just from this production of Oliver!, but of a great deal of theatre that I have seen this year. Creating theatre magic from pretty much nothing is something to be applauded.

The ensemble is brilliant throughout, creating wonderful backgrounds to the scenes with Natalie Evans' lively choreography and power to the big numbers such as Food, Glorious Food and Consider Yourself.
The Oliver! company
Director Christopher Elmer-Gorry keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace with minimal and rarely obtrusive changes upon Carl Davies' simple but effective set. Full of stairs leading hither and thither becoming multiple locations with minimal effort or through objects descending from above. There is a fabulous treat of also having a real dog performing as Bullseye and this also at one point creates an even greater moment of excitement. Final comment must go to the excellent orchestra under the direction of James Clements, filling the Royal with a wonderfully crisp rendition of the classic tunes.

Oliver! is just simply brilliant, and appeared to offer huge delight to the packed audience. The cast via their ethusiasm and youthful spirit spread a verve and frisson of excitement that you often don't get from some tired touring productions. Yes there are certainly stars of the future among the ranks of this production, however during this wonderful run of Oliver!, the whole cast are stars of the present.

Consider yourself all a great success and I will happily be back soon for more as I have been reviewing the situation and this Oliver! clearly provides for a good two hours a fine life for its audience. Who will buy I wonder the final few tickets left? I know for certain that I'd do anything to get hold of another ticket now and very soon you've got to pick a pocket or two to get one. However I am going to stop this now or I shall scream.

★★★★

Performance reviewed: Thursday 14th July, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

Oliver! runs at the Royal & Derngate until Sunday 17th July, 2016 with limited availability.

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/

(Photos: Graeme Braidwood)

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