Being an artful dodger is not usually a quality in boys that endears them to adults, but tomorrow Sam Mendes is desperate to see as many little urchins as possible. The theatre director is still searching for boys to play the part of the wiley pickpocket in his production of Lionel Bart's Oliver], opening at the London Palladium in November. Jonathan Pryce plays Fagin and previous auditions (right) have yielded workhouse boys, Fagin's gang and even Olivers (all parts are cast four times, as actors under 14 are not permitted to work more than 40 days a year). The Artful Dodger, however, has proved more elusive.' The Artful Dodger has to be technically more adept,' Mendes explains. 'He has to be world weary at 13 or 14 - have the quality of an old man combined with youth.' So Mendes is reviewing the situation and holding open auditions for the part at Hackney Empire tomorrow. He says, perhaps somewhat rashly, that 'all-comers are welcome'. Those interested in auditioning need to look between 10 and 14 years of age, and they need to be able to sing, but that stipulation aside, there is no ideal candidate - boys can be any size or shape, and from any ethnic background. They don't need to be at drama school, and they certainly don't need to be a Jack Wilde lookalike. They just have to consider themselves dodgy.
There won't be any terrifying solo speeches in the spotlight to the cruel cry of 'Next]'. Hopefuls will be encouraged to move in groups: 'They'll be warmed up in some dance steps by the choreographer Matthew Bourne,' says Mendes.' Then he'll gradually include increasingly complicated steps - their speed of response will sort the boys from the boys. We'll get them to sing songs and play a few games, and gradually we'll isolate the ones who are best.'
Mendes finds it easier to audition children than adults. 'You would be staggered at how much chutzpah they have: once they lose themselves it's amazing what they come up with.' And although he has no preconceptions about what he's looking for, he says he'll know it when he sees it: 'Casting is an instinctive process. . .It needs to be somebody you can't take your eyes off.'
Open auditions for the part of the Artful Dodger in 'Oliver]' take place at Hackney Empire, Mare St, E8 tomorrow, from 10am onwards