The show must go on, but keep it simple

If the end-of-term photographs in our local newspaper are any indication, Scotland saw many school productions of Oliver! in June. Lionel Bart's musical, now almost 50 years old, is as popular as ever. As an entertainment it has everything - familiar and well-loved songs, comedy, drama, dance, loveable villains, tears (if your Oliver can't inspire an epidemic of lumps in throats and wet hankies during "Where is love?", there's something wrong) and cute kids.

Bart's opening is inspired. He begins in the workhouse knowing that the mix of his music, the dancing orphans and the pathetic Oliver can't fail. It's all accompanied, from the audience, by the craning necks of mums and grans eager for the first sight of their little darlings. By the final, climactic ". . . Glorious food!", even the most cynical spectator is hooked.

So, it's not surprising that Oliver! has become such a stalwart of school show time? Well, yes, it is, because it's a beast to do well. It's long, the songs are demanding and the lead players need a strong presence. You need a good choreographer, too, and lots of rehearsal time, to realise the long-established routines - the carriage with its umbrella wheels in "I'd Do Anything", the dance on the tables in "Food, Glorious Food", the thieving games in "Pick a Pocket or Two" and Oliver and Dodger in "Consider Yourself".

Some of the songs are problematic for schools, with sexual overtones in "Reviewing the Situation" and "As Long as He Needs Me", while "Who Will Buy?" is just very difficult. And no, you can't leave bits out - you must apply for permission to perform (so you're paying royalties) and the rights holders stipulate that you don't change anything.

Too often schools choose Oliver! out of ignorance, thinking that it's a children's play. But it's not. Whether by Dickens or in Lionel Bart's version, the story of Oliver Twist is for adults and just happens to include children. Schools would do better to research the market and uncover the riches in publishers' warehouses.

There's so much specially written for different age groups nowadays covering almost any topic you can think of and catering for the 40 or 50 parts you will need. Upper primary's a great time for some of the best stories, traditional and modern. In recent years, the children at my former school have met Tom Sawyer, Ali Baba (with superb parts for the Forty Thieves), Frankenstein and his Monster, Evacuees, the Pied Piper, Jack and his Beanstalk (and his dancing Highland cow), Androcles and his Lion and many others. Just reading the list conjures up its own excitement.

The advice of "keep it simple" is the best for a school production. An hour is long enough and your audience will appreciate not being confined to hard chairs for a two-and-a-half-hour stretch. Nowadays, I wouldn't touch a play that doesn't have its own CD accompaniment. It's superior to even the best pianist and ensures that you have a big band present at every rehearsal, one which sounds the same each time and never makes a mistake. Hang the extra expense. The quality of a recorded accompaniment raises the level of your production.

Taking part in a school production is a superb experience for most children and one they remember, fondly, for the rest of their lives. It develops teamwork, relationships, self-awareness, responsibility and commitment.

Above all, it's confidence-building and enjoyable, provides the satisfaction of a job well done and there's not a computer in sight.

If further justification is needed, you will have noted that it covers most of the experiences and attitudes employers tell us they're looking for.

Oliver! is a great show but it's a one-off. There are many professionally written works that won't reach the West End but will provide great enjoyment and other benefits for your children while allowing you to hang on to a measure of sanity.

Brian Toner is a former primary headteacher.

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