Please, sir, I want some more

A review of the Peterborough Theatre Guild's production of Oliver!

The talented cast of the Peterborough Theatre Guild's production of "Oliver!", which runs from May 2-10 at Showplace in Peterborough
The talented cast of the Peterborough Theatre Guild's production of "Oliver!", which runs from May 2-10 at Showplace in Peterborough

I may have gone into the preview night of the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s production of Oliver! a bit biased.

I have a certain soft spot for the musical because when I was a child of eight, my elementary school put on the play — making it the first real piece of theatre I had ever seen. I remember getting wrapped up in the music, the drama, the costumes, and even the horror, opening the doors to a love for the stage.

Walking into the Showplace theatre about a half hour before showtime, I couldn’t help but find myself reliving that youthful excitement as director Gillian Wilson corralled a mob of guttersnipes stylishly dressed in white, giving them last-minute directions and warning them that there was someone that would be writing about them in the audience.

The energy and excitement of the young members of the cast had already seduced me and they hadn’t even sung a note.

But, to say the least, this is a much more sophisticated version of Oliver! than my elementary school put on 30 years ago. With a company made up of some of the finest singers and actors in the Peterborough community playing the principal leads, my expectations were already soaring as I waited with great anticipation for the curtain to rise. Yet none of my biases, expectations, and anticipation mattered once the show started. Somehow the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s production of Oliver! still managed to exceed even my wildest imagination.

Oliver! needs little introduction to the modern audience. Based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, Lionel Bart turned it into a musical in 1960 and it quickly became a staple of the theatre. Musical numbers such as “Consider Yourself”, “Food, Glorious Food”, “What is Love”, and “As Long As He Needs Me” have become musical standards.

Various versions of Oliver! have been staged in Peterborough over the decades, including one within the past 12 months. Yet, despite Oliver! being a perennial theatrical production, the combination of talents in this version make it distinctly special. Other versions pale in comparison, thanks to an all-star cast of Peterborough favorites.

Jackson Freeman as Oliver, Rob Ainsworth as Fagan, and Talen Waller as The Artful Dodger
Jackson Freeman as Oliver, Rob Ainsworth as Fagan, and Talen Waller as The Artful Dodger
Jackson Freeman plays the title role of Oliver Twist with as much charm as one would expect from the character. However, while many directors often are inclined to play the character as naive and precocious, Jackson’s Oliver has a bit more spunk than the versions before him. Although still wide-eyed and naive, Jackson plays the character with a sense of confidence — remember, this is the boy who had the guts to ask for “more.”

Personally, I find a more confident Oliver to be a more likeable one, and I don’t miss the dopey and cute Oliver of other versions of the play.

However, as Jackson’s character gets handed off as a living pawn to the various members of the adult cast, the subtlety of his performance is often in jeopardy of getting lost opposite the larger-than-life talents of the adult performers.

But what an education in theatre Jackson is getting to be part of this company! He is learning his craft by sharing the stage with some incredible individuals who are each giving phenomenal performances. Still, Jackson manages to find his own special moments during musical numbers such as “What is Love” and his solos in “Who Will Buy”.

Robert Ainsworth puts a unique spin on the role of the seedy criminal mastermind Fagan, often playing him more as a loving father figure to his gang of street urchins — yet still maintaining the shady element to his character. His on-stage chemistry with the younger members of the cast is a cross between the pied piper and a cult leader, but he manages to keep a certain charm in Fagan, making the character likeable instead of despised. Robert also goes so far to break the fourth wall at times which in normal circumstances may not have worked, but he has a magical presence about his performance that makes it seem natural and seamless. Although he plays a seedy character, Robert’s Fagan is not the villain and the audience seems to be cheering as much with him as they are for Oliver Twist.

Instead, the real villain is Bill Sykes, played by Dane Shumak, who gives one of the most surprising performances of the night. I became acquainted with Dane when he was directing ASTC’s production of Spring Awakening, and I could not imagine that the charming and passionate director with whom I had lunch would be able to transform himself into one of the cruelest brutes in fiction. However, Dane manages to find the role of the vicious Sykes somewhere inside of him, transforming himself into a hulking, snarling, and vicious murderer.

After seeing Kate Suhr in the role of Nancy, I have no doubt why she has gained a reputation as the current first lady of the Peterborough stage. Kate is an amazing performer who can do drama and comedy equally well, and she’s able to create an emotional connection with the audience. Not only is she a powerful actress, but she has become renowned for her singing. Without breaking her cockney character, Kate still manages to captivate the audience through four major musical performances. Her performance of “As Long As He Needs Me” is a true show stopper and is worth the ticket price on its own. Once again, Kate lives up to the reputation that she is making for herself.

I need to give a special shout out to Kate’s sidekick Hannah Bailey in the role of Bet. Perhaps I’m partial to raven-haired second stringers throughout the history of entertainment, but Hannah manages to drum up her own unique charm despite always sharing the stage with a powerhouse like Kate. I was always left wanting more of Bet, despite her being a secondary character. I have become a huge fan of Hannah in everything I’ve seen her done, and I’m looking forward to the next time that she is in the spotlight. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite performers in Peterborough.

When it comes to big presence, one can’t ignore the larger-than-life performance of Brian McDonald in the role of Mr. Bumble. Doubling as the musical director, Brian has one of the most powerful voices in the cast, and gives a comical performance as the villainous operator of the boy’s workhouse. His verbal sparring with Jacquie Butler, in the role of the Widow Corney, is the best comedic bit in the production, but the juxtaposition of Brian’s looming presence with Jackson’s small stature gives him a menacing sense of dread.

In the past, the role of The Artful Dodger made stars out of future pop culture icons Davy Jones, Jack Wilde and Elijah Wood, and director Gillian has discovered her own Dodger in Talen Waller. Full of sass and charm, Talen embodies the character like a pint-sized Oliver Reed, creating a bridge between the heroes and the villains, as well as the child actors and the adult stars. A wonderful performance from a young lady who I hope to see more of on the stage in days to come.

This wonderful production, suitable for the entire family, is a showcase of some of Peterborough's best performers
This wonderful production, suitable for the entire family, is a showcase of some of Peterborough’s best performers
The true strength is obviously the cast, but everything — from the costumes, choreography, the makeup design (primarily the stylized work on the workhouse boys), the elaborate set, the talented chorus players, and even the well-choreographed stage changes (which are cleverly conducted without breaking up the stage action) — makes the Peterborough Theatre Guild’s production of Oliver! a theatrical triumph.

Each and every individual involved in this production has a final product of which they can be very proud. When leaving the theatre, my face hurt from smiling and I walked away with the musical numbers running through my head, and I was singing the musical numbers all the next day. The production of Oliver! obviously left an imprint on my brain.

Let go of all your expectations and forget everything you think you know about Oliver!, and just go buy tickets to this wonderful production. It really is a showcase of some of Peterborough’s best performers, in a show suitable for the entire family. If possible, bring a young person who has never been to a play before, and give them an experience which may waken them up to a lifelong love for theatre and the arts.

Oliver! runs May 2nd to 10th at Showplace Performance Theatre (290 George St. N., Peterborough). Tickets can be ordered at the Showplace Box Office, by calling 1-866-444-2154 or 705-742-7469, or by visiting

Peterborough Theatre Guild Oliver! Promo

All photos by Theresa James / Peterborough Theatre Guild.