The irony in calling a musical Don’t Turn My Life Into A Musical is evident, but it perfectly captures the solipsistic agony of the five adolescents on the cusp of adulthood whose stories are being told here. 

‘Oh god, not more adolescent misery’ I hear you cry. ‘Can’t they just get over themselves? Just wait till they have bills to pay.’ But this show by Oldham Theatre Workshop (OTW) is full of surprises and even a tired old hack like me was engaged and highly entertained. Mind you, there are 40 people on stage in the big numbers, and they are very good numbers indeed. The gospel song in act two had me on my feet.  

Don't Turn My Life into a Musical. Photo by Lewis WilemanThis is a youth theatre show and while it’s an ensemble production, the five central characters carry a lot of the show.

Madeleine Edmondson plays Marnie, in love with a young man of colour but her Dad is a vehement racist. Ben Harris is Liam, desperate to come out but worried about the consequences, while Nina Jones plays Ellie, a carer for her mother who has MS, and thinks herself ugly. Then there’s Nathan Horrocks as Tom, who wants to be a dancer but his surgeon father has other plans, and Billy Barlow portrays Jonah, the only certified working–class genius for miles around, with all the social problems that entails.  

These stories could be trite, but in writer Sarah Nelson’s hands they develop beyond the ordinary, and the principals shine. They all sing solo too, and extremely confidently. Many of the cast have cameos, but Harry Malone is particularly hilarious as a would-be football manager, and Nataly Sabino is thoroughly vile as a scheming bitch who pretends to befriend Ellie only to supplant her as editor of the school mag.  

The music was composed by James Atherton, who also acts as MD for the band and directed the production. The choreographer is Karl Newsam. Between them they have created a production that moves seamlessly from intimate domesticity to large cast numbers and back again, and we barely see the join.

Don't Turn My Life into a Musical. Photo by Lewis WilemanEven in professional shows you often see members of the chorus marking time, but here everyone is on, and everyone deserved the standing ovation they got at the end.  

Of course OTW is no ordinary youth theatre. The leadership is exceptional. Atherton, who runs the organisation, is also a highly respected theatre composer who wrote the music for Around The World In Eighty Days which went from Manchester’s Royal Exchange to Broadway.

Nelson, who works at OTW as a group leader, wrote Letter To Boddah which won a prize for best theatre show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019. But perhaps most importantly, OTW has been consistently funded by the local authority for more than 50 years.  

That’s because, although members occasionally enter the entertainment business (Suranne Jones and more recently Olivia Cooke being the obvious examples), the main purpose of the workshop is to provide a recreational activity for young people in the area.

Don't Turn My Life into a Musical. Photo by Lewis WilemanAs we went into the theatre for the show we were given a cast list and, for the first time in my experience, a list of helplines in case the subject matter ‘triggered’ anyone in the audience. This concern for the social and educational value of what they deliver is fundamental to the workshop’s philosophy and practice. 

The workshop currently has more than 400 members coming every week, and if the response on Facebook when the first leader David Johnston died earlier this year is anything to go by, they will form friendships that last well into adulthood. To help sustain the workshop in these difficult times, keen supporters have launched a Friends Company. If you’d like to be involved you can find details on the Friends tab on the OTW website: 

 By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor

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Don’t Turn My Life Into A Musical was at Oldham Coliseum from Wednesday, August 3, 2020- Saturday, August 6, 2022