If you so happen to miss out on experiencing PLOS’s extraordinary production of Oliver! at the Franskton Arts Centre then I’m sorry but, simply put, ‘that’s your funeral’. Opening night audiences were struck by beyond exceptional set, lighting, sound, costumes, direction, choreography and, of course, a stellar cast. This production could have easily been transferred to the professional stage. It was, in fact, as if audiences had been treated to a little bit of professional theatre in the heart of Frankston; a treat I was all too happy to accept.
Based on the canonical classic, Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, Oliver! is a definite favourite among seasoned theatregoers. Due to its popularity and recognisable name, this show has certainly been around the traps, leaving the potential for lacklustre, predictable and somewhat overdone presentations. PLOS’s however, took great care to breathe a new life into this production whilst maintaining the integrity and charm audiences expect of Oliver!
Audiences were met with a grandiose set whose intricate details were captivating in themselves. The enormity of the set and its ability to be manipulated into a myriad of different formations was impressive and provided a strong platform for the equally as enormous performances of the cast. The lighting design mirrored Oliver!’s narrative exceptionally well and complimented the set pieces brilliantly. Coupled together, both set and lighting suggested and influenced mood changes in the audience which only worked to strengthen the story’s embedded emotion. In saying this however, there were many times throughout the show that scene transitions took much longer than they were supposed to and the stage was left in a blackout with no music playing. Other times the audience became privy to crew members scurrying off during the beginning of a scene due to the set changes taking far too much time. As this is quite a long show at the best of times, these delays were quite distracting and tiresome. This issue could be forgiven however, due to the clever and well calculated ways that the set was utilised throughout the production.
Oliver!’s choreography was a definite highlight. With such a large cast, including a decent sized children’s cast, coupled with a very large set, well executed and polished choreography would have been quite a big ask for choreographer Leah Osburn. However, the well-calculated, energetic and extraordinarily effective movement sequences and formations were simply awe-striking and comparable to routines seen in professional productions abroad. At no point did the cast appear squashed or need compromise their movement for the intrusion of the set or their fellow cast members. Each move was executed with purpose and passion. In particular, the choreography for ‘Consider Yourself’ was so very memorable and left me with an awfully nerdy smile on my face for some time after the conclusion of the song. Osburn should be exceptionally proud of her efforts and I look forward to seeing her work in future productions.
Ollie Culshaw as the Artful Dodger proved to be an exceptional talent to look out for in years to come. His tenacity and spunk was perfect for the cheeky Dodger and emphasised Oliver’s innocence all the more. Leading the massive number that was ‘Consider Yourself’ did not seem to daunt Culshaw in the slightest as he presented true control over his movement and vocals alike. I look forward to seeing Culshaw on stage again and as one of Melbourne theatre’s leading men in the future.
Particularly impressive was the performance by Fintan McCrave who took great strides in doing the title role justice. McCrave captured the hearts of the audience through his innocent and emotional facial expressions, and his ability to connect with the character s an accomplishment far beyond his years. Particularly notable was his performance of ‘Who Will Buy?’. His innocence and fragility sparked great emotion and allowed Oliver!’s narrative to take a hold of the audience even more so. Enabling us to connect with him on an emotional level proved advantageous for McCrave and found the audience more invested in the story when it was required. McCrave appeared to really be enjoying himself on stage which was a joy to witness.
The trio of Fagin, Nancy and Sykes portrayed by Mike Fletcher, Elise Stevens and Cameron Sweatman, respectively, were definitely strong and accomplished. Fletcher’s Fagin proved a hit with the audience, inspiring belly laughs and applause aplenty, while the intense interactions between Nancy and Sykes provoked an eerie audience silence, indicating an unwavering captivation. It must be noted however that Sykes and Nancy could have been a little better developed. It almost felt as though efforts to create mystery around Sykes and his relationship caused the portrayal to fall a little flat and therefore found Nancy’s death scene a little lacking, as audiences did not necessarily fear Sykes as they perhaps should have. With this said, it could have very well been the strength of the highly energetic and animated ensemble in contrast that could have hindered the necessary ferocity. The performance of both Sweatman and Stevens were still exceptional and beyond amateur theatre expectations despite this understanding.
Further to the aforementioned brief ensemble comment, I must note that the entire ensemble was a joy to experience and should be highly commended. A special shout out should be given to the ‘Who Will Buy?’ quartet, whose harmonies were shiver-inducing and showed incredible control. While for many, this song is one of those that seem to continue to pop up and just won’t die, I found myself waiting for it to return with anticipation as this group was a force to be reckoned with. A highlight of the show for sure.
Overall, if you are after professional grade theatre for a fraction of the ticket price, PLOS’s Oliver! will not disappoint. They have done well to captivate a contemporary audience with a classic such as this and should be applauded for their commitment to ensuring ‘quality’ and ‘amateur theatre’ need not be mutually exclusive and can actually coexist harmoniously.