Event Review: Bede’s ‘Oliver!’ Leaves Audiences Wanting More

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Bede’s production of Oliver! at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne this week marks the school’s Drama department's latest foray into the world of musical theatre, which treats the audience to a thrilling whirlwind of drama, music and dance on an ambitious and professional scale.

Oliver! has been at the centre of British culture since Charles Dickens’ original novel was published in 1837. The plot follows Oliver, a young orphan born into the workhouse, through the streets of Victorian London as he meets an array of characters and navigates his way through the city’s violent and unforgiving landscape, searching for a family and a home.

Several versions of the story have followed the novel on film and the stage, none more enduring than Lionel Bart’s musical, which has stood the test of time since its release in 1960. The Bede’s production features all of the well-known songs, characters and lines loved by audiences (“Please sir, I want some more…”), while expertly feeding in the dark and macabre undertone of the play’s setting.

The production begins with the orchestra’s tinkering and eerie introduction as the curtain rises, when the audience is immediately immersed in the dark and destitute scenery of the workhouse. Children climb through the sewers like rats before launching into a harmonised and expressive rendition of Food, Glorious Food!

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Mr Bumble’s entrance to the scene is full of foreboding and suspense, and Will Hopkins effortlessly maintains the essence of the character throughout the chanting chorus of Oliver!, the cheeky and humorous I Shall Scream – wonderfully partnered by Imogen Hooker as Widow Corney – and the sombre Boy For Sale. With a performance like this, it is difficult to believe that Will is yet to take his GCSEs!

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The next scene seamlessly takes us to the undertakers, where we meet the delightfully dark yet comical Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, brilliantly portrayed by Max Mason and Lotte Simmons. Following a characterful rendition of That’s Your Funeral, Leo Wynne-Williams takes centre stage as Oliver for his first solo piece. Here, the audience is treated to an emotive performance of Where Is Love?, and Leo’s truly angelic vocals fill the auditorium.

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The dreamy mood is abruptly interrupted by the entrance of Noah Claypole and Charlotte (confidently played by Freddie Tuson and Adelaide Barden), a cruel and flirtatious young couple whose jibes towards Oliver result in a comic, fast-paced fight scene. After running from the undertakers, Oliver meets the colourful and charismatic Artful Dodger (expertly played by George Lewis and Echo Abraham), who leads the cast in a jovial rendition of Consider Yourself.

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A seamless transition from the marketplace leads us to The Thieves’ Kitchen, where we meet The Gang and their charismatic yet conniving leader. Tom McGovern delivers a standout performance as Fagin, effortlessly leading the audience through the merry dance of You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two and the more solemn monologue that follows.

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From here, we are introduced to Nancy (beautifully played by Meghan Longden) who leads us through the final two songs before the interval – It’s a Fine Life, partnered with Lili Longden as Bet; and the upbeat and romantic favourite, I’d Do Anything, which draws The Gang into a song and dance with clever use of props.

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Following a short interval, the curtain rises on a raucous tavern scene and the audience is treated to an exuberant rendition of Oom-Pa-Pa. The abrupt change of tone with the entrance of the formidable Bill Sykes is impossible to ignore, with Jonny Keegan delivering a strong and menacing rendition of My Name. Bill’s aggression is directly contrasted to Nancy’s softness, as we enjoy Meghan Longden’s tender and heartwrenching solo performance of As Long As He Needs Me.

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The scene is reset to Mr Brownlow’s house overlooking a marketplace, where we see a clever layered rendition of Who Will Buy?. The cast shines in this play highlight, and Leo Wynne-Williams’ solo as Oliver is guaranteed to give you goosebumps. It is here that we meet the gentlemanly Mr Brownlow, kindly Mrs Bedwin and characterful Dr Grimwig (wonderfully played by Louis Muston, Charlotte Webb and Matthew Moloney respectively), and the audience is treated to a moment of comfort and peace before the sinister transition back to The Thieves’ Kitchen.

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The next climactic scene sees Bill, Nancy, Fagin and The Gang conflict with a brilliant reprise of It’s a Fine Life. Fagin’s following monologue of Reviewing The Situation is a delight, as Tom McGovern expertly takes us through the character’s tortured indecision interweaved with humorous asides.

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The final remaining scenes take the audience through a whirlwind of emotion – from the comedy of Mr and Mrs Bumble’s domestic argument and the sadness of Nancy’s tragic end, to the tension of Bill’s violence and anticipation for Oliver’s deserved happiness. The audience is then treated to a full company finale performance of musical favourites Food, Glorious Food!, Consider Yourself and I’d Do Anything, resulting in the audience leaving the theatre with a spring in their step.

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The production is an astounding feat of musical drama, and sincere congratulations are owed to the entire cast for their brilliant performances. The stage was set courtesy of Stage Manager Evie Taylor and a huge backstage crew, with the fantastic props created by Mr Richard Waring, Mr Nick Potter and their team. The characters were brought to life thanks to wonderful costumes designed by Miss Eleanor Conlon, and makeup by Firdest Karaca and her team.

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The show’s atmosphere is owed to a fantastic musical score, which is expertly performed by Bede’s Director of Music Mr Robert Scamardella and his orchestra. Congratulations are also owed to Mr Lee Smikle, who brings the songs and story to life with brilliant dance choreography.

Overall praise must go to the show’s Director and Bede’s Director of Drama Mrs Karen Lewis, and her second-in-command, Mrs Kelly Goldring, who – with the help of many other members of staff, parents, alumni and pupils from the Bede’s community – have created a true masterpiece.

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We look forward to welcoming our audiences to the final performances of Bede’s Oliver! this Friday and Saturday. There are a few remaining tickets left, but you’ll have to be quick to book yourself a seat to a performance not to be missed…

Learn more about the Bede's Drama department >

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