Last Christmas, Matt Ganley found himself playing a mandolin-wielding, chain clanking ghost of Jacob Marley in Storyhouse’s adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“It was lovely,” the Manchester-born actor-musician recalls of the 2020 festive season. “It was such a great company to be with, and great to be in the building and get to know how Storyhouse works.”
That experience meant he immediately said yes when the phone rang with an invitation to return to Chester for another seasonal Dickens – this time a new version of the author’s much-loved Oliver Twist.
But twist has also proved to be an apt word for the former Emmerdale and Hollyoaks actor whose extensive stage appearances have seen him play everyone from Romeo and Macbeth to Tony Blair and an elephant’s rear (one of no fewer than 28 roles in the madcap Around the World in 80 Days).
Because the invitation from Storyhouse producer Helen Redcliffe wasn’t simply to appear on stage, where Matt is playing baddie Bill Sykes – complete with a real canine sidekick, but to take on the mantle of musical director too.
In fact, Oliver Twist! marks the Mountview-trained performer’s debut as a musical director, although he reveals he’s long held an ambition to take on the role.
And it didn’t take long to slip into the MD mindset. He explains: “Once I started getting familiar with the script, I could just hear it – I could hear what the songs needed to sound like. And then I just went to work.”
“I’ve got a studio at home, and I started recording the songs as I’d imagined them and went from there.”
Despite the production being full of music, Matt is keen to emphasise it’s not the Lionel Bart musical and there are no renditions of I’d Do Anything, Reviewing the Situation or Food Glorious Food.
Last year’s A Christmas Carol was set within a soundscape of post-punk pop protest songs.
And similarly, the soundtrack to this adaptation of Oliver Twist! is full of new versions of what Matt calls “amazing 70s punk songs. We’ve got The Jam, we’ve got The Smiths. Really cool bands.”
“Alex Clifton (who adapted the play) has chosen some great songs like Going Underground and This Charming Man. Great songs that have elevated the story.”
The show opens with That’s Entertainment, The Jam’s biting commentary on the realities of working-class life at the turn of the 1980s.
“Kash, the director, and I both thought that was the perfect frame for how we’d tell the story,” Matt says. “It’s dark, but ultimately it is entertainment. It spoke to the playfulness and the joyfulness in which we tell this quite bleak story.” Of the eight-strong adult cast, six are professional actor-musicians and the others are also involved in the music, either singing or adding texture with percussion.
Matt, whose Sykes plays bass guitar, has arranged the well-known tracks to give the music and lyrics their own unique life and meaning within the structure of Dickens’ and Clifton’s narrative, working to what he calls “a punk folk aesthetic.”
“A lot of it is very acoustic, very lo-fi,” he says. “But it’s got a raucous energy to it. If there’s a point in the show which is quite bleak and quite heavy, it’s our job then to balance that with a tone that’s fun and almost anarchic.”
He adds: “Storyhouse doesn’t seem afraid of telling the darker stories, but it does it with a twist – putting a bit of joy into the darkness, and vice versa.”
“And actually, what you end up getting is a meaningful, but also a highly enjoyable production.”
INTERVIEWED BY CATHERINE JONES
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