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Oliver Twist (Bolton)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Question: how do you entertain 300 excited, raucous, lively schoolchildren for two hours? Answer: you take them to the Octagon to see the current sensational production of Oliver Twist. As this is certainly the Christmas show to beat this festive season, with its new script and score, an endearingly wonky bricks and gaslight set, and plenty of cockney oom-pah-pah, it’s like a junior version of Les Miserables.

The story, in Deborah McAndrew’s excellent new version, remains the same. Oliver Twist (Alex O’Loughlin in the performance I saw, sharing the role with Joseph Callaghan) is born into smog-choked Victorian Britain, and delivered straight to the workhouse. After falling foul of the ominous Mr Bumble (Tim Frances), he sets off for the dangers and delights of London, where he falls into Fagin’s (Robert Pickavance) gang, and discovers the pitfalls of life in a tough city.

Quite simply, this is the best piece of family theatre that I can remember seeing, and it is sure to enthral, delight, and grip all ages. I was surrounded by an audience of schoolchildren, who didn’t utter a single word, and were held captive throughout.

Josette Bushell-Mingo’s direction is inspired, and restlessly inventive, creating flights of imagination and wonder from the simplest of ideas. It is entirely to her credit that the pace never flags, and that the sense of joy remains throughout.

Author McAndrew has wisely jettisoned much of Charles Dickens’ novel, and streamlined the piece into an accessible narrative. Unafraid of exploring the novel’s darker side – let’s not forget that Nancy is beaten to death by Bill Sikes – she has created a piece that offers plenty of scope for the cast.

An astonishing ensemble of seven actor-musicians create a cavalcade of brilliant and entertaining characters, and none of it feels rushed or sketchy. In the lead role, young Loughlin offers a touching and charismatic performance, and is well matched by Adam Lofthouse as Dodger. It is also genuinely lovely to see a dozen local children fully immersed in the production. They have clearly been well rehearsed, and appear to be having a whale of a time.

The icing on the cake is Dawn Allsopp’s impressive and flexible set, and Conrad Nelson’s (a regular Octagon and Northern Boradsides performer) sumptuous score suggests he could give up the ‘day job’ if he wanted to.

It is genuinely hard to find fault with the production, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

To paraphrase the show’s title character: “Please, Octagon. Can we have some more?”

- Matthew Nichols


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