Oh-oh, I thought as I took a quick initial glance through the rather original newspaper-style programme for the latest Courtyard Community production (no budget problems, it seems).

At the end of his little piece highly-touted director Nikolai Foster encourages audiences to visit three websites - for make poverty history, women's aid and Barnardos. Oh-oh.

Let's be clear before we start.

This is the Lionel Bart warhorse musical packed with memorable tunes and knockabout fun, villains, vagabonds, impossible coincidences and enough sentimentality and cuteness to make you gag or lift your heart depending on your outlook. It is not a whole new rendering of the decidedly grim Dickens novel.

But in this version we get a fashionably dark and gritty "realism" purporting to deal with weighty social issues. Fine. But any joy and humour in the Bart original (which, plotline apart, is totally different in tone to the original Dickens text) has, for me, disappeared.

In truth, I felt like filing two completely separate reviews of this show. The first would deal with the production on its own terms. Nikolai Foster has reinterpreted the Bart piece in his own way and has made an extremely good job of it. It's brilliant in its own terms.

The wonderful set and interesting lighting plot ( virtually monochrome with splashes of orange and red here and there) serve his vision brilliantly - like Ingmar Bergman at his most downbeat trying his hand at a Sondheim musical.

It's the job of courageous directors and performers to look at established texts in fresh and surprising ways to give audiences new insights and ring different resonances in our jaded souls, so good luck, Mr Foster. But I reserve the right not to like the result.

My second review would deal with the show as a presentation of the Bart text as a musical entertainment, in which case it falls some way short of the mark. The sound balance leaves a lot to be desired, for instance, there are too many numbers in the first half, and Paul Wills' awesome set, as high as the fly tower, is not used as fully as it might have been. I could have done with a few urchin heads popping out of windows or Bow Street Runners being seen to do just that through the grills.

But we're in an atheist versus believer bind here. Mr Foster and his obviously extremely able production team are efficiently offering a vision of the show which I simply can't buy.

Call me a miserable old git if you will (and I'm sure you will), but I do not expect to sit through a production of Oliver! and not laugh once. Not a single titter. For me the experience was like going out to report on a rugby match and ending up watching a bridge tournament.

So, taking this basic problem on board, let's just look at some of the more obvious virtues which I can wholeheartedly commend to potential audiences.

The first, by several miles, is Josie Walker's Nancy, excellently acted and brilliantly sung. It's well worth a visit to the Courtyard simply to catch her performance. She is the radiant star of the show, which is a bit of a worry for a critic, because I would expect it to be Fagin (a too-young Philip Cox). Neither he nor Bill Sykes (Jason Haigh) seem to be big enough characters, certainly without that Dickensian dimension that's needed.

Although the Sykes' mutt Bullseye is in the programme, I must have blinked and missed him at Saturday's matinee - when I seemed also to note an emergency switch of Olivers.

The excellent pit band (with wonderful upper register violin from Jane Collins) under Mark Collins often seemed too loud. They weren't. The singers simply were not ballsy enough. Numbers which should have knocked an expectant audience back through sheer volume and exuberance died within half a dozen rows of the stage. Simply a matter of technology, I suspect, for there are some good voices here and there.

The choreography (Val Jones) did not excite and the exigencies of the huge single set meant changes were far from snappy and yet there was no real sense of the passing of time in the narrative, which, ironically, comes over as compressed and hurried.

The lighting, although far too dim for my taste (see above) is brilliantly done, using stark contrasts with pools of shadow to highlight the grim vision of the director.

The climax is splendidly executed (although Nancy's death seems rather too graphic for a family audience) but to fade to black after Fagin marches downstage with his (gratingly symbolic) shadow getter ever larger behind him is, I think, an equally large letdown.

I always thought the story was supposed to have a happy ending after all the Victorian melodrama (because that's what Dickens is). I could have done with an extravagant karaoke finale with a medley of all the great songs being belted out - and with the audience encouraged to clap and sing along.

Sorry guys, everyone's clearly worked like crazy to pull this off, and it's a great thing to have a production of this magnitude out in the sticks.

I'd earnestly recommend anyone with an interest in theatre to make sure they see it, for all sorts of reasons.

But there's one hungry soul here who won't be asking for more.

Running time: Two hours. Until September 24 Box office:0870 1122330 www.courtyard.org.uk

Sid Langley