Oliver!, Belconnen Theatre until January 25

Young talent time

The appeal of Lionel Bart's Oliver! for a local theatre group is obvious: it is based on a well-loved story, it has a tuneful, rousing score and it gives a lot of people an opportunity to display their musical theatre wares. It is, also, a very demanding piece. It would be misleading to assert that all dramatic and vocal challenges are fully met in Ickle Pickle's current production but it is fair to say that this is a spirited and engaging presentation.

Oliver! requires a very large cast and it is in the crowd scenes that this production works best. The workhouse children or Fagin's ''boys'' have been well marshalled and the chorus singing is lusty. Some of the shorter dramatic scenes were a bit flat on opening night but should pick up when audience response is gauged. The choreography can be a bit busy at times (the notion that ''less is more'' can often be applied to choreography), though the Consider Yourself ballet is very attractively staged.

It is the amount of young talent that is the most appealing aspect of this production. There are eye-catching performances from even the smallest roles. And in the title role, the sweet-voiced Ben Burgess makes a very sympathetic Oliver after a tentative start. Jack Taylor handles the Artful Dodger with great confidence and Jeff Young shows a real stage presence with his impish Charley (winning the audience over at the start with his in-character discouragement of mobile phones and photography).

Of the adult cast, Michael Jordan as Fagin fares the best. His singing could be stronger but his comic characterisation is excellent. Fagin has some great lines and Jordan wastes none of them. Richard Block is a suitably sinister presence as Bill Sykes while Michael Miller (Mr Bumble), Debra Byrne (Widow Corney) and Chris Donahue (Dr Grimwig) give performances true to the Dickensian origins of the piece. Leanne Olsen is an affecting Nancy, though she had trouble sustaining her vocal strength on opening night.

The experience and talent of these older cast members, as well as Susan Davenport's assured musical arrangements, Janette Humphrey's creative response to the mammoth costuming demands and Steve Galinec's flexible and appropriately sombre set, all work together to give the emerging stars every chance to shine.

Although some of this Oliver! is uneven, it allows its audience a chance to enjoy Bart's memorable songs appealingly performed and an early opportunity to see some of Canberra's genuinely talented young people.