The BBC TV programme “I’d Do Anything” in 2008 was a primetime search for a “Nancy” and an “Oliver” to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End revival of Lionel Bart’s musical “Oliver!” Paul ran one of the weekly challenges, training the young Olivers in ‘the nimble art of sleight of hand’ so that they could hone their pick-pocketing skills. Full version of the interview on the BBC website here.
Can you explain about the work you did with the Oliver’s for this mission?
I design magical effects in stage shows (I’ve previously worked with Cameron on Witches of Eastwick and on a couple of projects with Andrew).
There are no magic effects in Oliver as such but you’ve got to be nimble fingered to be in Fagin’s gang. So I taught some basic prestidigitation (that’s French for quickness of the fingers!). But the starting point of the work was I hasten to add NOT pick pocketing, a highly dubious skill which succeeds only by going unnoticed – no use for the stage!
So we took the idea of being quick with the hands in a fun and showy way. There are lots of appropriate objects from the Victorian period that also double up as magic props – handkerchiefs, coins, walking canes, top hats. So all the kids learned tricks with those kind of things and then performed for Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Why is it important for potential Oliver’s to learn these skills?
In order to perform magic you have to master a few skills A great deal of the art of a magician is in the acting- being able to instill in the audience their belief that the magic is happening. So it teaches the kids to have an inner script, to act out something that they imagine.
It’s also is a great way of learning direct audience communication. It requires timing and a lot of showmanship – all things that are very important in a big musical for lots of other reasons. And it also involves handling props at the same time as performing to an audience.
With magic this can be like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time especially as you might also be doing secret moves that the audience shouldn’t notice. It also really teaches how to direct the attention of an audience – making them look where you want them to look and that’s a very useful performance skill to learn too.
How did the Oliver’s get on during this mission?
That kind of age 9 10 11 is the best age to learn magic. It’s when I started! So they were all excited and enthusiastic about learning. It was interesting to see how they all expressed their personalities differently.
Some of them chose to a tricky coin trick and in some ways that was the bravest choice as it was the least proppy and most relied on skills of acting and misdirection. But they all did very well indeed.
Did you enjoy the mission?
Very much. I was lucky enough to meet Lionel Bart many times when I was working at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on The Invisible Man’ so I feel especially connected to the show. I’ve always loved the musical so it was great to be asked to be involved. But magic can take a long time to learn so it was tricky training the kids so quickly. But they were all bright and I tried to teach them things they could pick up rapidly.
It was great fun seeing them come up with different personalities’ stage names and presentations. I was amazed by their creativity!
What do you think makes a good Oliver?
I think he has to have a total innocent charm, a cheeky face and the voice of an angel!
What do you think makes a good Nancy?
She’s a feisty survivor with a heart of gold and she’s got to be able to belt out a number when she needs to! I can remember being heartbroken with what happens to her when I saw the film as a kid and to feel that emotion (which is incredibly important to the impact of the show) you have to really care for her in the first place.