Leanne Olsen as Nancy and Ben Burgess as Oliver Twist in "Oliver!". Photo: Stephanie Burgess
A musical dealing with abject poverty, child abuse, murder and a ring of thieves doesn't exactly sound heartwarming. But writer-composer-lyricist Lionel Bart's Oliver!, adapted from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, was a hit when it was first produced in London in 1960 and it has become an enduring international favourite. Its well-known story, colourful characters and songs such as Food Glorious Food, Consider Yourself and As Long As He Needs Me have helped keep it alive.
Ickle Pickle Productions is presenting Oliver! as its summer holiday show. With a cast of more than 50, it is a large production but the title character is very much at its centre. Ben Burgess, 13, is playing the character, whom he describes as ''a hopeful child''.
And Oliver Twist needs to be hopeful. An orphan who's been raised in a grim workhouse in 19th-century England, he is indentured to an undertaker, runs away and falls in with a gang of child pickpockets led by the wily Fagin (Michael Jordan).
Directing the production is John Alsford, who has worked in children's theatre for decades.
''The challenge of kids is that they have a lot more get up and go, a lot of energy, and they really push you to do it right. You can't fool them,'' he says.
And there's great satisfaction, he adds, in seeing young people who have never acted before get on stage, bring a show to life and have a fantastic time.
For him, ''the music is the maypole we all dance around'', even more important than the story or the characters or the choreography, but he's mindful of the other elements, too, especially the exploration of a very particular - and very harsh - environment.
''It was a very hard time, a dark and difficult time … people did whatever they could to get on with their lives.''
Jordan says of Fagin, ''A lot of people have seen him in a lot of different ways over the years'' - from malevolent to benign. He's chosen to play the character as ''more of a lovable rogue'', in the style of the original Fagin, actor Ron Moody.
The 32-year-old is growing a beard and otherwise working to ''age'' himself for the role. He says that on the first day of rehearsal he was imitating Moody's voice and one of the youngest member of the cast said he had been falling asleep but perked up when he thought he was hearing the sound of Moody, whom he had seen in the 1968 film version. He took it as a compliment and was impressed that the boy had seen and remembered the film.
Jordan thinks that part of the appeal of Oliver! is that it's a classic story of a sympathetic ''underdog'' struggling and ultimately triumphing to get what he deserves.
Developing a rapport with the many children in the cast is important for the adult actors, perhaps none more so than Richard Block, who is to portray the villainous Bill Sikes.
''He's one of those fantastic characters to play just because he's so deeply bad, only concerned about himself,'' Block says.
''To be able to create someone the audience is going to hate is deeply satisfying … I know I'm succeeding when I'm scaring the kids.''
But Block is no child-hating actor: he doesn't stay in character offstage (nor does he have to contend with an animal as Bill's dog, Bulls-Eye, has been written out). He especially solicitous of Leanne Olsen, who plays Nancy, Bill's loyal but ill-treated girlfriend.
''We're great friends, which works very well, especially when things get intense,'' Block says.
Olsen echoes this, saying ''Richard is very professional and great to work with: there's a lot of trust there.''
She says ''working girl'' Nancy is ''very complicated, probably the most complicated character I've come across and that I've had the opportunity to play. She's a very conflicted character, very sad in some ways.''
Although she grew up a world of crime and is brutally treated by Bill, Nancy's a good-hearted young woman who puts on a brave face and does her best to look after the boys in Fagin's gang.
Among them is the Artful Dodger, played by Jack Taylor, the most accomplished young pickpocket in the gang.
Taylor, 15, says Dodger is ''very cocky'' and - at least for a while - idolises Bill Sikes as someone to be emulated.
He played one of Fagin's gang in a 2007 production of Oliver! and is enjoying the opportunity to revisit the show as a different character under a new director, ''to see another person's spin on it''.
Oliver!, he says, is ''about how important family is'' and the orphaned Oliver is seeking someone to belong to, as his song Where Is Love? indicates. Fagin's gang provides a flawed surrogate family for the boy.
Taylor says he and Burgess didn't know each other before rehearsals began but - like their characters - quickly struck up a friendship.
And Burgess - like everyone else - says ''the cast'' is one of the best things about the show.
''The story is pretty good and it's fun doing it all,'' he says, and he enjoys the songs, though he's facing a challenge there.
''I think my voice is breaking, I'm not sure,'' he says.
But he and his mother are working on it and he will be ready to meet whatever challenge lies ahead - not unlike Oliver himself.
• Oliver! is on at Belconnen Theatre from January 11 to 25. Tickets $26/$22.50. For performance details and bookings visit canberraticketing.com.au