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Ed Betton and Arthur Burdess in Oliver! at the Watermill Theatre. Photo: Philip Tull Ed Betton and Arthur Burdess in Oliver! at the Watermill Theatre. Photo: Philip Tull

The idyllic Watermill Theatre building dates from 1830, a few years before Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was published (in serial form) for the first time.

Director Luke Sheppard probably believed the venue would make the perfect space to stage a fresh, powerfully intimate interpretation of Lionel Bart’s classic musical – and he was right.

In the past, Oliver! has been produced on a grand scale, but here the piece is laid bare in the tiny confines of the Watermill and the results are often stunning.

A company of highly talented actor/musicians not only double up on roles, but also provide a drama-enhancing soundtrack. While the first half may have a few pacing issues, and one or two of the children look a little out of their depth, the second is memorable from start to finish.

Within a string of outstanding performances, Alice Fearn (as Nancy) and Cameron Blakely (as Fagin) give mini masterclasses in acting through song. For the latter’s Reviewing the Situation, Kit Orton, a sinister Sikes (despite the absence of bull terrier Bullseye), is also excellent on violin. 

Among the children, Ed Betton appears most at home when his Artful Dodger has an opportunity to sing and dance, while Arthur Burdess, in his portrayal of Oliver, reveals a maturity beyond his years.

Sheppard and his colleagues – choreographer Tim Jackson, designer Tom Rogers (the curtain of handkerchiefs in Fagin’s den is particular effective) and lighting designer Howard Hudson – create the perfect atmosphere, completely immersing the audience in compelling drama and song.

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Intensely atmospheric, this staging of Oliver! reinterprets a classic with flair and intelligence