The cast of Daniel Evans' production of Oliver! soon to open at Sheffield Theatres, have nothing but praise for him. 'Daniel's a dream', exclaims Hayley Gallivan, who plays Nancy. 'He has such a way of getting you to go to a certain place; to think about what you're saying and who you're saying it to. You really feel that you are working together. I genuinely think he's something special'. Ben Richards, who plays Bill Sikes, agrees: 'Daniel is brilliant. Everyone's talking about him. Everyone's talking about this theatre and clamouring to work here and Daniel's got a lot to do with that. He's relaxed, open, communicative, inspired in his vision. It's an exciting time for Sheffield and the theatre scene here'. Gallivan feels this buzz too: 'I was so excited when I arrived. Everyone is lovely and there's a real feeling as though you're all in it together. It's full of heart'.
Is Evans as upbeat as his cast? 'It is exciting...' - he wavers - 'I have to admit it sometimes feels a bit like a mountain: a cast of 30; 60 kids; 15 band members. But the thing that makes it seem a scalable mountain is that we have such a brilliant creative team: choreographer; musical director; designer; cast. They're all working very hard, rehearsing a lot of evenings with the kids, but they're not flagging'.
The children, all local and cast from open auditions, make up a huge part of the production. Has Evans got more than he bargained for here? 'I'm pleased I have an actor's training so I can make myself heard in the rehearsal room', he smiles, '60 kids can make a lot of noise, but they're doing incredibly well. I'm very proud of them. I think their families should be very proud of them and I hope it will be an experience they'll never forget'.
His cast are similarly impressed: 'The kids are so professional', explains Richards. 'Oliver and the Artful Dodger are more on their lines than I am. They listen to direction; take it on board'.
Tom Edden, who plays Fagin, has just had his costume fitting: 'I love it', he enthuses. ‘Costume is always a huge ally to the actor, but I can't think of another character where costume is so important. It's been a big part of the creative process. I tend to work from an image first. The Cruikshank drawings in the original Dickens were a big inspiration. We've thought about everything: whether he would have a heel on his shoe; the silhouette of the cloak. When all the costume and make-up are on, I want to be able to look in the mirror and see Fagin. That's a big boost, when you're at the end of the rehearsal process, wondering if you can quite get there. It gives you the final push you need'.
Is he intimidated by taking on such an iconic role? 'With a character like Fagin you hope to find some things that will surprise an audience and do some things they will expect. You don't reinvent for the sake of it. You can't forget about famous portrayals of Fagin, but I've deliberately not looked at anyone else's since I was cast. You have to bring your own imagination and your own personality to the role. That's why you were cast. Ron Moody is untouchable, but you have to let that be and do what you can do. You can't look at the Mona Lisa every day and get depressed that you can't paint it'.
Despite the show's, and the cast's, exuberance, there is a darker side. ‘From the start, Daniel said he wanted to make it as real as possible', explains Gallivan. ‘Sikes beats Nancy to death – there's no way to do that politely. We haven't worked on that scene yet, but we're already building the level of tension – the high stakes – so that the threat is very much on-going'. Richards agrees that this build-up is essential. ‘You can't skim over the relationship between Bill and Nancy. Of course you see the bad, but you also need to see the passion and the energy – why they are together. He's a very dangerous man, living in a very dangerous place, but no one is all evil. There are reasons behind his behaviour. You have to try and find the humanity in him. Somewhere you need to feel for him'.
Evans doesn't see the play's contrasting tones as a problem. ‘Really it's just getting a balance between the two authors of the piece: Dickens and Bart. Bart has written an amazing score – songs that have worked their way into our DNA, and Dickens's novel is full of humour and black humour, so the clues are all in the piece itself. Yes, there are some jolly songs, but there's also a woman who is beaten to death for protecting a child and children being groomed as criminals. It's a wonderful challenge – to make both those things exist in the same world. But those things do exist in the same world and they still co-exist in our world. The things we're talking about haven't gone away - child prostitution, trafficking – so it's interesting to view this 50 year-old musical, based on a 150 year-old story in that light'.
Oliver runs at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 25 January 2014. For further information visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk