Oliver Jnr Takes to the Stage!

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OriginalImage,OriginalOliver Jnr Takes to the Stage!


Dearest Gentle Reader…. As this reviewer lifts her quill to pen her last ever ‘Edwardian’ review,  that greater privilege than to cover  the sensational showstopping  Dickensian music-hall extravaganza that was Oliver Jn!  

The Wroughton Theatre was transported back to rookeries and slums of Victorian London, billows of smoke sliding over blackened brickwork, the sound of horsedrawn carriages competing with cries of street vendors, festoons of stolen silk handkerchiefs hung like bunting from the rafters and a cockney urchin advised the audience to mind our step on the ‘apples and pears’ and watch out for pickpockets! Then the show began with a Dickensian bang as squadrons of squalid urchins marched on stage with empty bowls, singing and salivating of ‘Food, Glorious Food’. And, cor blimey, gov’nur, as soon as they burst into song, it was clear this was going to be a show with serious ‘Oom-pah-pah!’. 

The workhouse is run by the bilious and blustering beadle Mr Bumble (Bert Scotland) and his equally odious sidekick (soon-to-be ball and chain) Widow Corney (Eliza Bodey), who made a fine pair of pantomime villains. Corney with feline ferocity, Bumble like a tin pot dictator, face red as his scarlet regimentals as he bellows in consternation at young Oliver’s temerity ‘More!!!’! Bert’s powerful rendition of ‘Boy for Sale’ was a poignant reminder that this is a tale of child trafficking (of which Dickens himself, forced at 12 years old to work ten hours a day in a rat-infested blacking factory, had first-hand experience) and the audience is pleased to see Bumble get his comeuppance  when he discovers that the law of patriarchy  is indeed ‘an idiot’!  

Oliver himself can sometimes come across as a simpering milksop of a character but talented young actors George Thomas and Benji Howlett, avoided saccharine sentimentality, bringing a natural and nuanced simplicity to the role, combining angelic voices and maturity beyond their years in a performance which was in turns heart breaking and heart-warming.

Less prepossessing were the ghoulishly ghastly Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, the direful duo of undertakers played with gleeful malignity by Tom Bateman and Elkie Humm.  Not forgetting their sullen and supercilious offspring Charlotte (Liv Pope) whose eye-rolling spectacular deployment of the ‘side eye’ made for some of the best comedy moments of the whole show. Of course, that was only when she wasn’t flirting with the odious Noah Claypole (Drummond Lascelles) a snotty nosed bully boy who is ultimately outwitted by the nimble footed Twist in a comedy caper chase scene that had the audience cheering.

Once escaped from the sarcophogeal Sowerberrys, Oliver finds himself cast adrift on the streets of London where he encounters a rather familiar top-hatted thief by the name of Jack Dawkins, or the Artful Dodger to his friends. Played with glorious poise and panache by Nameeta Nandeibam and James Fairthorne, this loveable rapscallion takes young Oliver back to the den of thieves run by the infamous Mr Fagin (Kit Baxter and Edward Griffin). This Fagin is fabulously, crookedly, comically, villainous and verminous, and yet our two young actors made the miserly, acquisitive old fence curiously sympathetic, lending a vein of vulnerability which leaves us hoping the old wretch might escape the gallows one more time!

Enter Fagin’s gang of street urchins, including cheeky chappy Charlie Bates (Will Powell), the somersaulting, saucy sensation Nipper (Wren Cook), the nimble footed – and nimble fingered - Handwalker (Sophie  McBride) and the capering Captain (Aurora De Chair). This glorious band of scallywags who dip and pick-pocket for a living, pilfering nose rags, wallets and pocket watches from the rich, deliver glorious song and dance numbers ‘I’d do anything,’ ‘Be Back Soon’, ‘Pick a Pocket or Two’ with infectious glee and gusto. 

Dickens was a muckraking reformer, writing to raise awareness of the cruelty of the Victorian welfare system and the disparities between the ‘two nations of rich and poor’ in Nineteenth Century England. But this story is also celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and nowhere is that dichotomy better exemplified than in Nancy, the girl of the streets who blossoms like a rare bloom in the ‘muddy puddle’ of the metropolis. Played with a heartbreaking combination of passion and vulnerability by Becky Baxter and Penny Papadin, Nancy and her sassy sidekick Bet (the fabulous songstress Sophie Osborne) relishes ‘small pleasures’ even in her life of poverty, her indomitable spirit unbroken even in the devastating conclusion. And yes, I cried, during ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ – twice each night! 




Nancy leads this cast of Cockney pearly kings and queens in a glorious rendition of ‘Oom-pah-pah’, risks everything to save Oliver’s life and never stops loving the dastardly Bill Sikes. ‘He who must not be named’ is played with suavely sophisticated villainy by Gilbert Wilkes who can wither with a single curl of his lip or sneer of his insidious eyebrows. Thank goodness that benevolence is personified in the character of the sweetly avuncular Mr Brownlow (Ben Jones) and the kindly Mrs Bedwin, with the voice of an angel and a heart of gold (Lucy Small) who want to adopt young Oliver. Dr Grimwig (Max Zahn) is the pontificating platitudinous physician who cynically declares he will eat his head if the street urchin can ever mend his ways. And Matron (Livvy Palmer) accompanies Old Sally (Cecelia Keppel Palmer) the crooked soothsayer who reveals the truth of Oliver’s past in creaking tones before collapsing like a spent Cassandra in Matron’s arms.

Cue a murder, a chase scene, a perniciously incompetent Peeler (Gully Kuenzler) a dramatic denouement on London Bridge and a final fatal gunshot.  With incredible song and dance routines (choreographed by Dani Tamblyn alongside Sixth Form Dance Captains Brooke Bazeley and Liv Phillips); show stopping tunes, delivered with serious welly by our young cast of Year 8 and 9 performers (special mention must go to the beautiful soloists in ‘Who Will Buy  - flower seller Daisy Fuller, milk maid Imogen Goswell-James, strawberry vendor Sienna Randall, and knife grinder Ela Jones); sensational set pieces; mind-blowing set, lighting and costumes from tech impresarios James and Mark Sellick; and I must mention the incredibly professional pupil back stage crew  (Ellie Worsley, Sam Cochrane, Lily Morgan, Grace Fieldhouse, Kenzie Davies Young) headed up by Stage Managers Mary Dunsby, Lottie Morris and Annabel Howlett; the inspired musical direction of Mrs Thomas, ably assisted by Evie Shepherdson; and of course the astonishing directorial brilliance of the indefatigable Mrs Tamblyn  and her Year 12 dynamic duo Joseph Walker and Beth Fear … with this show stopping combo, Oliver Jr! truly took KES Drama to new heights!

In fifteen years of reviewing KES shows I’ve been to Middle Earth, Outer Space and Treasure Island; I’ve been transported to Wonderland (3 times), Neverland and Narnia (twice each). I’ve time-travelled to Ancient Greece, Georgian England, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, Fair Verona; been to Prospero’s Island, Animal Farm… and Wigan! I’ve seen one man with Scissorhands, two dragons, three Long John Silvers, five Romeos, six Juliets, seven White Witches, eight Alices, at least ten Aslans, casts of thousands …. and about eleventy billion rodents, complete with ears, noses and tails (to be honest, you haven’t served your apprenticeship in KES Drama until you’ve had whiskers at some point!)  I have laughed, I have cried, I have gasped, wondered and marvelled. I have stood in awe of the talent of KES pupil performers, singers, dancers, actors, tech team alike. 

But please indulge this reviewer as she takes a moment to pay humble tribute to the true stars of the nearly fifty shows she has reviewed. My remarkable colleagues in the Drama Department, past and present, have been to the ends of the earth (and frequently to the ends of their teacherly tethers!) in order to give legions and legions of KES students unforgettable theatrical experiences which will stay with them for life. For if we are doing a tally, I wonder how many thousands of pupils have been privileged to tread the KES boards thanks to the inclusive ethos of KES Drama? How many pints of teacherly blood, sweat, tears have been shed to produce shows worthy of the professional stage? How many hours of plotting, planning, preparing (and sleepless nights!) have been dedicated to create the sensational shows I have been privileged to review?  And so, after ‘reviewing the situation’ for a decade and a half, I can conclude only thus: KES Drama Department, you are heroes all, and I salute you, one and all!