Oliver Twist!: Interview with the director, Kash Arshad

Kash Arshad has assembled an impressive CV of work since he swapped acting for directing six years ago. But one thing has still eluded him – until now.

“I’ve always had a hankering to make a big, fun, energetic show with music,” he admits. “Those usually take a long time to come about for a fairly new director.”

“So I couldn’t turn this down, even though it’s quite scary! It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”

The Scottish-Pakistani theatremaker originally appeared on the Storyhouse radar two years ago when he applied to direct one of the productions in the Storyhouse Originals Season 11.

“Storyhouse put out a call for freelance directors, which is so rare,” he explains.

While he wasn’t successful on that occasion, he made a strong impression on the creative team which has led to this latest role at the helm of Oliver Twist!

It’s the first time Kash has directed a literary classic. With the story being so well-known and embedded in the public’s consciousness, does that make his job easier or more challenging?

He considers: “I guess audiences already have a rough idea of the story, so it makes the storytelling easier.

“But the flip side of that is people come with certain expectations, which makes it quite hard, especially if they think it’s going to be like the musical. Although the story and characters are similar, it’s not Oliver!”

“The challenge,” he adds, “then becomes, how we keep it fresh and surprising?”

Just as with last season’s A Christmas Carol, one of the ways is through bold and unexpected musical choices. And the other comes through the script itself which former artistic director Alex Clifton penned before he left Storyhouse earlier this year.

“What Alex has done with the script is really interesting,” Kash says. “There’s so much fun and silliness, but what he hasn’t done is shy away from the darker elements”

Audiences may spot a couple of key tweaks which have been made while remaining in essence true to the heart of Dickens’ original tale. The storytelling is then fully shaped in the rehearsal room, with Kash describing his approach as “very much collaborative.”

“Being an actor can’t help but inform how I work in a room full of actors,” he explains. “Vision is too grand a word, but I come in with an idea of what I want the show to feel like and how I want the audience to feel.”

“Then I try and coax that out of the performers I’m working with, along with taking their ideas.”

“They’ve already shaped the show differently to how I thought it might happen, and that’s a really good thing because they’re all experienced performers and they know what they’re doing.”

While the professional cast are inhabiting Dickens’ vivid roll call of characters, including Fagin, Nancy and the Artful Dodger, the role of Oliver himself is being shared between four young actors from Storyhouse’s Youth Theatre.

In fact, Kash has been busy rehearsing four completely distinct companies of 10 young performers who are playing the part of fellow urchins and pickpockets.

Part of that is down to Covid caution, and part down to the amount of time they are required to be in the heart of the action during each performance.

“For a group of 11 to 13-year-olds, it’s a lot to ask over such a long run,” the director says. “So, the fact they’re getting time off is really useful I think, because they’ll come to every performance really excited and fresh.”

So as a former actor, does he have a secret hankering to get up, grab an instrument and join the Oliver Twist! cast on stage this Christmas?

“Absolutely not!” he laughs. “The moment I realised I’d made the right switch (from acting to directing) was when I watched the first show I directed, and I had no jealousy at all.”

“I’m relieved I don’t have to go on stage – I’m more than happy to sit in the dark and enjoy these wonderful performances.

INTERVIEWED BY CATHERINE JONES

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