First-time director Jude Colquhoun wants to put her own stamp on Queanbeyan Players' production of Oliver!
But she also wants to respect the material and audiences' expectations for the Lionel Bart musical, which is based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist.
"You really can't mess around with Dickens - you can't locate it in a different time zone."
She's not planning to do that. What she wants to do, though, is to emphasise the darker and dramatic aspects of the story that aren't as prominent in the musical rather than the lighter ones that are usually the focus.
It is, after all, a rather grim story for much of its length, which any number of jolly songs and dances can't conceal. The issues it deals with include poverty, homelessness, child exploitation, robbery, domestic abuse and murder - all of which are, sadly, still relevant.
"I want to make the characters as real as possible."
In Oliver!, an orphan spends his early years in a workhouse before being sold as cheap labour to an undertaker. Ill-treated there, he runs away to the city to make his fortune. He's recruited by an older boy, the Artful Dodger, to join a bunch of juvenile pickpockets and thieves who work for Fagin, a wily criminal.
Willum Hollier-Smith, who plays Oliver, says his character is "very innocent" despite growing up in the deprived and desperate environment of the workhouse.
"He hasn't been exposed to anything outside."
He has maintained his naivety and guilessness and manages to do so even when the Artful Dodger (Joss Kent) recruits him for Fagin's gang.
When, by a turn of fate, Oliver does get a chance at a better life, he faces great danger.
As part of playing up the musical's serious side, Colquhoun says, "I'm trying not to have Fagin be too comic."
Anthony Swadling, the Fagin in this production, agrees, saying they collaborated to bring out more of the character's sinister side. It's not hard to find a way to do so: although he can be played as a lovable rascal, and he feeds, shelters and seems to like the children in his gang, he's also selfish, exploiting them and sends them out to steal for him.
Swadling has wanted to play Fagin for a long time but says the role has its challenges. He and Colquhoun didn't want to overemphasise the character's Jewishness - he doesn't want to come across as a stereotype.
"I'm working on my Jewish accent."
And, especially nowadays, having a man live in such circumstances with a bunch of children might make some think he might be using them for more than thievery, but suggesting this is not the intention.
"You've got to do it delicately."
But it's not total darkness. Swadling notes that Fagin's songs You've Got To Pick a Pocket or Two and Reviewing the Situation have something of a Russian folk music feel and says numbers like these and It's a Fine Life are "really good fun".
Swadling thinks of the characters in terms of the title of the spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: "Oliver is the good, Sikes is the bad, and Fagin is the ugly.
"Dodger is in between - he has more of that childish innocence still going."
Emily Pogson plays Nancy, the barmaid girlfriend of the dangerous Bill Sikes (Michael Jordan), an associate of Fagin.
She says the character has grown up amid the thieves and criminals of London's underworld but has managed to remain kind and loving,And she's the one who will prove herself to be, arguably, the most selfless character in the story - some more light among the darkness.
- Oliver! Book, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Director/musical director: Jude Colquhoun. Orchestral director: Jenna Hinton. Choreographer: Jodi Hammond. Queanbeyan Players. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. September 27 to October 6, 2019. theq.net.au.