Oliver, Centre Stage at Exmouth Pavilion

CENTRE Stage, which was known for the first 20 years of its existence as the  14-20 Music and Drama Society, now happily  welcomes younger members into its ranks.

Two of them, 11 year olds George Kill­oran and Jack Gittoes-Davies, shared the exacting title role in Lionel Bart’s wonderfully tuneful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ far darker novel.

Just how Lionel Bart managed, while keeping the bare bones of Dickens tale intact, to convert this story of betrayal, abuse, and murder which also turns the spotlight onto  the evils of the Victorian Workhouse, into an evening as full of fun with just the occasional dash of high drama is a theatrical miracle.

Using a slightly updated version of the original script, director/choreographer Sue Bonnett, while intent on getting as much fun as possible from the script, at the same time does not run away from some of the nastier aspects of this brooding tale. In fact Harry Wright and Luella Lewis, both of whom gave excellent fully committed portrayals of the psychopath Bill Sikes and his tragic girlfriend Nancy, would have been even better had they taken their foot off the accelerator pedal  on more occasions. Not, I hasten to add, in Luella’s show stopping rendition of As Long as He Needs Me.

Jack Woodthorpe went in the opposite direction turning Fagin into a truly lovable avuncular figure, leaving any trace of the scheming child manipulator and evil stolen goods fence far behind.

Despite towering over the rest of Fagin’s gang, all of whom gave the impression they were enjoying every minute of their time on stage, Max Abrehart-Smith lived fully up to his name of The Artful Dodger.

It is all to easy, especially with solos like Where is Love? to sing, to make Oliver into a sickly-sweet character, but George Killoran avoi­ded that trap, capturing the audiences love from the word go with a lovely sincere portrayal. We were defiantly on his side, rather than Joseph Lewis and Lisa England, a finely matched money- grabbing pair as Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, or Joshua Lees and Rosie Hodgson’s  equally repellant undertakers Mr and Mrs Sowerberry.

There were some interesting arrangements for MD Jeremy Rawlings and his orchestra to play, at time giving the distinct impression that the show had moved from London to Paris, but never being anything but fully supportive of the singers.

The idea of using one set, with a few swiftly set scenes and massive changes of lighting was sound enough, but there were times when the small insets could not be divorced from the general background.

With a company as full of enthusiasm and energy as this one and a production that always moved at speed there was little time to worry about any faults in staging, and the fulsome response from the audience at the final curtain certainly left you in no doubt that any such faults had not worried them one iota.

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