Belfast Telegraph

The Northern Ireland singer who poured his life savings into a musical he hopes could make it to the West End

Esler Burke, from Larne, tells Stephanie Bell about penning a sequel to Oliver that opens at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey next week... and his reservations about dating the much younger woman who became his wife

Singer-songwriter Esler Burke at his Larne home
Singer-songwriter Esler Burke at his Larne home
David Essex

Esler Burke struggles to find the words to express his delight at what it will mean to see the curtain go up on his first ever play later this month.

Twisted - a sequel to the Dickens classic Oliver - is the realisation of a dream for the 72-year-old singer-songwriter.

It has taken five years of burning the candle at both ends to write the script and the songs for the production.

And what became an all-consuming task has also cost him every penny of his life's savings.

That he has created something special is obvious in the calibre of top musical professionals who have come on board to help bring the play to stage.

The orchestration for the production has been arranged by Mark Dougherty, who was musical director for Riverdance for five years and has also worked with the likes of Van Morrison, Suzi Quatro, Johnny Mathis and Howard Keel.

Wilson Shields, another renowned figure in local theatre who served as musical director at the Grand Opera House for a number of years, is in charge of the musical supervision and additional lyrics.

To have such heavyweights from the world of theatre in his corner has meant the world to Esler.

It all started when he first saw the film Oliver with Ron Moody as Fagin in the Regal Cinema in his home town of Larne 20 years ago.

The movie captivated him and left him with a fascination for the story.

He says: "I went to see Oliver and was blown away by it. Lionel Bart, who created the music and lyrics, became my hero.

"Those great songs were just amazing and I read the book and went to see the theatre production and every production or film I could. I got into in my 50s and up until then I had never really discovered musical theatre, but I found that I loved it.

"That started me thinking of all the great films there are which have sequels and wondering why there was never a sequel to Oliver.

"I've written songs for years with my great friend Bill Allen, who sadly passed away two years ago, and I've made a few pounds from some of them.

"I found the spark to get me going on writing the script when I read the book. I was surprised to come across Oliver's half-brother Edward Leford, who did not appear in the film. He was 14 years older than Oliver and a lifelong criminal and he tries to get Oliver killed.

"I decided to take the story up when Oliver is 25 and after his brother tried to get him killed. That was the spark for my musical and the story continues from there."

Esler, who is married to Mandy (57) and has two children Lynzi (33) and Robert (34) and twin grandchildren Sebastian and Scarlett (7), grew up an only child in Larne where he still lives.

His parents were in their 40s when their first and only child came along and Esler remembers being the centre of their world.

He says: "My dad was a breadman and my mum was a housewife and she was 44 and my dad was 42 when they had me.

"I suppose I was spoiled as a child. My mum was very religious and I have never drank or smoked in my life and that's because of her - and that's very unusual in the music business.

"My parents never sent me to singing lessons or piano lessons but I was singing in school productions in Milford Primary from the age of six and set up my first band at 16. I since taught myself how to play the piano and guitar."

Esler trained for five years as an engineer with Pye Radio in Larne while fronting a number of bands in his spare time.

He says: "It was a wonderful time in the Sixties when The Beatles were big and the music was magic.

"The bands I played with did covers of all the music at the time such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Searchers."

Elser made his name in the Seventies with a semi-professional band called Springfield but it was in the late 1970s when he got to turn his passion into a full-time occupation after joining the band of a young country sensation at the time, Mary Lou Coleman.

Mary Lou came on the country music scene in the Seventies, making headlines as a new teen sensation.

Touring across the UK, the band had a chance at a recording deal and were invited to London to discuss it.

They missed out for a most absurd reason - Esler was the spitting image of another artist who was a huge pin-up at the time and the record company thought there was only room for one David Essex (top left).

He recalls: "We were a seven-piece band and we toured all over the country full-time. We were called to London to discuss a contract for a record deal and at the time David Essex was a massive star and I looked very like him.

"They said there was no use trying to promote two of us so we didn't get the contract. It was just one of those things and the David Essex thing certainly worked for me at concerts as the girls would gather round the stage."

One of these girls - his wife-to-be Mandy - caught his eye.

However, while she came back night after night clearly smitten, Esler was just as captivated but didn't make a move because he felt that at just 19 to his 34 years at the time, she was too young.

He says: "It was the dance in the King's Arm pub and this wee girl came up every night in a yellow dress and blonde hair and she was so lovely. I used to think if I was younger I would ask her out.

"Then her mum approached me one night and asked me why I hadn't asked her out and that was it. We are as happy as can be and we've been married 37 years this year."

Esler has continued to play in bands and was part of well-known two-piece Instant Replay with his friend Alan Cooke for many years.

He now performs alone and also gets together with some of his contemporaries for gigs with a band called Castaways.

But it is his play which has consumed him for the last five years.

Once he had the idea for the story he set about writing the music and the script - something he had never done before.

He says: "It has been five long years in the making, working through the night into the morning with the birds singing and dawn breaking, that's how caught up in it I got.

"It was slow going until I met Wilson Shields and then it began to take off.

"A friend put me in touch with him and I went to his house. He was a very nice man and I was worried that I was wasting his time but he told me my script was actually quite good. I asked if he would help and he has been amazing.

"Wilson then brought in Mark Dougherty, who also has a big CV, to do the orchestration and together they are the best team in the country musically.

"Mark has introduced the flute and the horns to the songs and a full orchestration and it's going to be wonderful."

Esler has poured every penny of his savings - around £15,000 - to date into helping get his script to theatre.

It will take considerably more money to stage the show which opens in Theatre at the Mill on February 20.

The play is being staged with a cast of around 40 young people from Home Spun Youth Theatre with a few mature amateur actors.

Twisted takes up the story of Oliver Twist 15 years on from when the Dickens story ended.

Oliver Twist is now in his late 20s and when he first meets and falls in love with Jane their happiness seems assured. However, all is not as it first seems and dark days lie ahead.

Characters from Oliver and Jane's past come back into their lives, but who can they trust? Who is out for revenge? Will Oliver's love for Jane stand the test of time?

Knowing that it is soon to be staged, Esler is full of emotion.

He adds: "It is crazy. I keep pinching myself because I really can't believe it. I'm sitting here still in a daze because I am about to put a musical on stage in Northern Ireland. It is something very special.

"Everyone working on my team is brilliant and now we have to try and fill that theatre. It is a dream getting it on stage and I am hoping some people will come down and see it and maybe want to take it further.

"The team really have lifted it to another level and it is like a West End musical. The cast are brilliant and I am just over the moon how good everyone is.

"If you like the story of Oliver Twist then you will love Twisted."

Twisted will be showing at Theatre at the Mill from Wednesday, February 20 until Saturday 23, every evening at 7.45pm with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm. Tickets: £15 & £13 (concession), family ticket: £50 (2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children). For more information and to book go to www.theatreatthemill.com

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