Youth group ensures extra helpings of musical theatre in Co Donegal

Cast members from DYMT's production of Oliver!, on at An Grianán theatre this week
Jane Hardy

THERE'S no question that musical theatre is having a moment. The West End is dominated by musicals, the annual output of the Grand Opera House in Belfast is 32 per cent musicals, the Lyric theatre reports that one in eight of its produced shows is music theatre.

Lauren McDonald (22), company manager of the Donegal Youth Musical Theatre (DYMT), has a theory about why.

"It's a popular form of entertainment now as there's new talent emerging in Ireland, creating new forms of musical," Ms McDonald says. She adds that the DYMT's new production of the 1960s musical Oliver!, opening this week in Letterkenny, illustrates the shift.

"The old stereotypes of the musical, the American form everyone watched on telly, has been replaced by something which looks at relevant themes, as in Oliver!"

The old Hollywood musical may be no longer respected, or even wanted, by a younger theatre audience. But as Ms McDonald tells me while taking a break from a technical rehearsal, the new approach packs a punch.

"It's a gender-blind production and the Artful Dodger is played by a girl, Sadbh Breathnach. And, as it happens, last year's award winning Jesus Christ Superstar had a female Judas,"she says.

"There's a relevance in the show, which is set in the Dublin of today. We've brought Charles Dickens's novel and story right into 2019 with the themes of homelessness and domestic abuse."

In fact, neither Lionel Bart's 20th century musical nor Dickens's 19th century novel could be described as cosy or superficial. When Oliver loses his protector, kind Nancy, to her sadistic boyfriend, Bill Sykes, it's a grown-up recognition of violence, twisted relationships and an unjust society. Yet the all-Irish cast of 24, aged from just 10 to 24 years old, are apparently finding the heart and sadness in the story. As Ms McDonald notes: "It's giving them the experience of the genre, the chance to express it."

They're receiving training from the best. Director Séimí Campbell has worked in the West End and aims to bring London standards to the north west. Ms McDonald says the young people, who come from the Republic and Northern Ireland, are responding with energy.

"We've got kids from Cork, from Dublin, Belfast, Derry and Donegal; the whole of Ireland is represented. They don't need to be operatic standard vocally, but have to have character. The person training them is Tina Verbeke who's the vocal coach for Bono and Hosier, among others."

But what does it mean for the young people undertaking a tight three-week rehearsal period, following a West End timetable, to put on a show so popular that when it first opened it featured on a stamp. A lot, according to Lauren McDonald: "It builds confidence, teaches discipline and the young people in this ensemble are gaining a positive approach, something they can do which avoids the obvious temptations."

We discuss the production's new emphasis, but Ms McDonald doesn't want to prompt a spoiler alert.

"I can't reveal too much of what happens as we want audiences to be surprised," she laughs.

You can't help but wonder, though, whether any stars will be born in Letterkenny's An Grianán Theatre this week. Perhaps, Ms McDonald admits.

"The guy playing Oliver is Ethan Barron. He's 10 years old and an absolute little star, loving every minute of it. His fellow actors interpreting the challenging roles of Nancy and Bill Sykes are, understandably, older. Anna Gallagher (24) is Nancy and Conor Whiten (22) is Bill Sykes."

Ms McDonald's journey towards the roar of the crowd is surprising. She studied law at Trinity College Dublin, and says she has not decided whether to enter the profession later, but got involved with student productions. This is her first outing with a professional production.

Sitting in on rehearsals, she says that this production of a 21st century Oliver! will be something special.

:: Oliver! runs at An Grianán theatre, Letterkenny, until Saturday August 17. Tickets and info at

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