I now know why Kings Monkton School put the exclamation mark in the Oliver! title. An exclamation mark is used to indicate an ‘intensity of emotion’ and Oliver! the musical certainly packs some punch.

Lionel Bart’s award winning musical based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist is one of the country’s most popular musicals and minutes into Kings Monkton’s production at The Gate Arts Centre, Cardiff it became abundantly clear why the secondary school chose it as their inaugural venture into a musical performance. Bravo!

Kings Monkton students are afforded the luxury of not only having an enviable music department led by Claire Bourne, allowing pupils access to a recording studio; radio club and excellent music learning facilities. But they also have the professional support and expertise of the International Music School (IMS) Cardiff, who brought the production of Oliver to life by providing all music and drama provision as well as making sure everything from auditions and casting to one-to-one coaching and accompaniment was run professionally and smoothly.

As the school’s first foray into musical productions, Oliver! was a great choice as it offers a number of smaller roles (with just a few lines), so that almost everyone can get a bite of the cherry. The production was not over ambitious in its staging nor design. The grand piano centre stage and the players performing on a lower level in simple costumes was a stroke of genius, thus not overshadowing the young novice performers.

Kings Monkton School

The opening number is the infamous Food, Glorious Food number and the audience were given a real treat with the full ensemble pilling onto the stage with a nifty dance routine, having lots of fun. Our next song was Boy for Sale which brings us back down to earth with a bump with Charles Dickens’ bleak realty of children being sold for cash. Oliver Phillippo perfectly cast as the little Oliver gave us a beautiful rendition of Where is Love? quickly followed by a very well-staged ‘coffin’ scene where Oliver makes a run for it, which was also when we got to meet the Artful Dodger, the famous street urchin, played by Alfred Williamson. A lovely young actor full of charming confidence, he continued to keep the audience engaged with another famous belter Consider Yourself. The Artful Dodger then takes the nervous Oliver back to the ‘safe’ confines of Fagin’s den, where he’s greeted by a plethora of lively street urchins.

The second stroke of genius of the night is discovering that Fagin’s casting took an unusual turn as he is played by a female student, the lovely Ellie Biggs and her subtle, yet confident performance brought a smile to everyone’s faces. Another beautifully choreographed moment ensued when the ensemble showed off their pickpocketing skills, stealing the beautifully coloured scarves from Fagin’s many pockets. Once again through humour and fun the audience were being reminded of Dickens’ world, where young children roamed the streets pick-pocketing, taking advantage of whatever situation came their way.

Meeting Nancy was a treat, as we were given one of the most confident performances of the production from Josephine Stark Harding, confident but not overtly so. Her chunky boots and toned down girlishness really was a refreshing change from how the character can often be portrayed. A sweet voice and lovely performance was also given by Haneefa Hassan as Bet, I think we can expect more from Haneefa in future productions.

Due to the unusual staging, with the performance happening in front of the stage, the cast and crew came to the stage in the interval to re-dress the set. This ‘behind the scenes’ insight into cast and crew team work, and the friendly interaction was a very comforting thing to watch. If I was a parent in the audience, I would have felt very proud indeed.

Another famous belter and audience favourite is Nancy’s Oom-Pah-Pah, and Josephine’s lovely accent and strong voice played a beautiful background to lots of great drunk acting and general frivolity. Everyone always looks forward to Bill Sykes’ appearance and Alfie Stevenson’s performance was again subtle and not the evil overbearing sexist man that Dickens gave us. He’s mean but I thought subtly reserved, maybe to be a little more PC, which worked well, we were treated to a nice bit ad-libbing from Alfie too, as he helped a few fellow actors out of a spot.

The realisation that Oliver is indeed the grandson of a friendly and moneyed gentleman, Mr Brownlow, is always a tear jerker and a challenging role for a young boy to play, but Jack Phillips played ‘older’ beautifully. Nancy’s sad ending was perfectly anticipated and again staged well leaving the audience suitably sad and in need of the well-timed reprise of Fagin’s Reviewing the Situation and finale.

Without overegging the curtain call, the young students graciously accept their applause and Paul Norton, Kings Monkton’s principal and his young son came to the playing area to thank the cast and crew. What became very apparent is the camaraderie between the pupils, teachers and principal, the respect and fondness is clear, and in the best final twist of the evening the two leading ladies came to the stage to also present flowers to Director, Jacquelyne Hill (Jacs) and Daphne Chook who took care of props and costumes. They also presented Immanuel Voigt who accompanied the production beautifully with some well-earned chocolates. Bravo Kings Monkton.

A few words from Immanuel Voigt, Director of IMS Cardiff

Our vision for this project was to give secondary pupils of the Kings Monkton School the opportunity to be part of a professionally run musical show. Most importantly, we wanted to make it inclusive and to give all children, regardless of their level of experience in acting or singing the opportunity to perform in a musical. We also didn’t want additional learning needs to be an obstacle which is why we have worked especially hard to overcome issues such as stage fright and social anxiety through individual rehearsals and coaching. Our musical director Jacs Hill and I have coached the performers in small groups and one-to-one sessions to make sure they felt comfortable acting and singing on stage.

Costumes and set were chosen and built by Daphne together with our tech and props crew. Lighting diagrams were also devised by Kings Monkton students who auditioned for tech, props and costumes. This also applied to the flyers, posters and tickets, which were all designed in-house the students.

It was an absolute pleasure working with the wonderful pupils of the Kings Monkton School and we could not have been prouder of the result they produced. We are looking forward to building on this success with another production next year – the bar certainly was set very high indeed by this year’s cast!

For more information about Kings Monkton School please click here

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