FOUR years ago, Samantha Barks was an unknown, teenage hopeful competing to play the iconic musical theatre role of Nancy.

She may have missed out at the time, but Samantha, now 21, certainly makes the role her own in the touring production at Manchester’s Palace Theatre (until March 10) making her a true musical theatre superstar of the future.

I saw her shortly after the BBC TV talent search I’d Do Anything, miscast as Cabaret’s Sally Bowles.

While her talent was undeniable, the role was not right at the time so it was fantastic to see how far she has come.

Samantha’s portrayal of downtrodden Nancy perfectly showcased the character’s vulnerability and strength, and she moved so naturally - commanding attention among the adorably scampish Fagin’s gang and the pub rabble as she led the ensemble.

And she showed the heartbreaking quality of her voice in As Long As He Needs Me.

Neil Morrisey was a surprise as Fagin; unrecognisable under the make up, he had a great rapport with his gang and - while he may not have the best vocal - he told the old man’s story well.

Oliver! is a favourite of mine, and I felt the build up to the hard-hitting arrival of Bill Sykes in the second half was utterly trashed by a scene inserted in Act One, where - pantomime-style - he unloaded loot from pockets and orifaces.

The unnecessary and cheap playing to the crowd ruined the fear factor usually created by the hushed repetitions of his name as you wait the first glimpse.

But, once ‘properly’ joining the plot, Iain Fletcher made up for this with all the gruff tones and brutal manners expected of the villain.

The true stars of this show though - besides the fantastic junior cast, of local and professional child actors - are its production values.

The set, scenery, costumes, orchestra, lighting and sound are lush, making the show an utter treat for the senses, the likes of which are not often seen on regional stages; even those of the Palace’s calibre.

A true musical must see.