It was in his new five-storey home in Doughty Street, London in 1837 when the British author Charles Dickens began writing the timeless classic Oliver Twist.
From April 12-23, London's West End theatre company Popular Productions is bringing the British composer and writer Lional Bart's Oscar and Tony Award-winning adaptation of Dickens's book to the First Group Theatre in Dubai.
Over the past two weeks, the 130-strong cast and crew, which includes UAE-based actors, have been rehearsing the musical Oliver! in the emirate under the direction of John Payton. The story follows an orphan boy who is thrust on to the mean streets of London, encounters peculiar characters but still maintains a level of optimism.
Popular Productions was recently behind the staging of Stephen King's Misery in February and The Sound of Music last year with an 11,000-strong audience.
This year also marked the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birthday, which fell on February 7, and Payton believes the timing of the production could not have been more perfect.
Dickens was a great storyteller, not just through the plots he created but the quirky characters, says Payton.
"Oliver Twist deals with issues such as poverty and criminality - elements still relevant," he says. "Oliver is also a colourful character interwoven within the fabric of today's media and arts."
After the success of The Sound of Music, the company felt it was the right time to bring out a British musical full of drama, comedy and music.
"Oliver is played by Dubai-based young actors and many other leads are UAE-based. It inspires me because it's an epic musical that gets right to the point."
It will be the company's biggest production in Dubai to date.
"Oliver demands you give the audience the scale that it requires. The set includes a market place, posh house, park and, of course, the underground lairs," he says.
The biggest challenge is working with the 97 child actors.
"So much effort goes into perfecting this production and it's been a dream to present it in Dubai. It has also done wonders for the confidence of the kids and I'd say it's our best cast," he says. "The audience will be bowled over when they watch it because it stirs something up inside."
West End Cast
Notable actors include Phillip Cox (Les Misérables, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) who plays Fagin the "loveable rogue", running the team of pickpockets. Lucy Hunter James, the producer at Popular Productions (The Sound of Music) plays Nancy, the thief risking her life for Oliver, while Jonathan Alden (Les Misérables) plays Bill Sykes, the brutal thief.
Cox, in Dubai for the first time and playing Fagin for the second time, says it is one of those "roles that are a gift".
"Fagin also has a mean and selfish streak. He has a treasure box he often gloats about that no one knows of," he said. "Everyone knows the story and Fagin because Oliver is one of those books you read as a child."
For James, playing a "strong" and "feisty" character is a challenging but welcome departure.
"I love playing a fighter. Nancy has been working for Fagin since she was five, but she's a woman with a heart. To her, Oliver is special but Bill Sykes beats her down and she suffers for it," says James.
For the Dubai-based actors, 12-year-old Callum Bell from England (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pinocchio) and 11-year-old Samuel Burton from Wales (Peter Pan, Camp Rock), playing the lead has been "amazing".
"This is the best show I've done. It's really cool playing Oliver and the variety of people I've met are nice," says Bell.
For Burton, his involvement also increased his self-esteem.
"Being in Camp Rock and Peter Pan I took seriously, but now I'm more confident after getting the lead role," he said. "It's a great experience being in a big production and I've made lots of friends."
They also reflected on how fortunate they are not to have struggled like Oliver's character.
"We're lucky to have all we do. Oliver went through a really tough time," says Burton.
Bell says that having a supportive family also makes a difference.
"We're lucky to have parents who love us and not to have had that type of negative lifestyle so young," he says.
There are around 350 costume pieces being prepared by 60 seamstresses in Satwa, Dubai and preparations began seven months ago.
"There are elements of costume that we couldn't find here because it's so specific to that era in England, but we have a big team working on the materials right now," says Payton. "What we are doing is offering a slice of life in London on the stage. For the audience, it must look absolutely natural."
The show runs from April 12-23 at First Group Theatre, Madinat Jumeirah.
Timings: April 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22 and 23 - 7.30pm, April 13 and 20 - 2.30pm, April 14 and 21 - 1.30pm and 6pm.
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