Wednesday 4th March 2020 at Leeds Playhouse (Quarry Theatre).
Oliver Twist has once more found his way back to a stage and in this production Amy Leach directs a brand new Dickens adaptation from Bryony Lavery – one that wholly embraces its gritty and disturbing origins. A co-production of Leeds Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon, this adaptation lingers in the dark depths of Dickens’ story in an impressive departure from the jolly sing-song adaptations so strongly associated with it now. Those retellings often mute the tragedy of the work but this Oliver Twist is a return to tragedy as focal point as we’re hauled through a story of a youngster wronged by all.
Opening with a sweet, sympathetic little Oliver in puppet form (design and direction from Rachael Canning) strikes exactly the right note for this particular production, highlighting the inherent brutality of a story following a boy picked up and pummelled and plonked down again. The integrated accessibility via BSL and captioning along with audio description spoken by the ensemble as chorus introduces interesting dynamics here. A Deaf and non-verbal Oliver (Brooklyn Melvin) is a revelation and presents the character through a new lens.
Here Dickens’ most tragic little lad is no more the foundling boy with a tiny squeaking voice but a vulnerable child unable to express himself at all when characters around him fail to spot his difference or have no idea how to understand him. Their dismissal and disinterest in understanding him gives the piece a uniquely self-aware shine and provides some gentle moments of education. With not a word spoken, the cries of desolation carry all the more weight and with every flinch and hunched shoulder Melvin communicates with great clarity the pain and fear nipping at the boy’s heels.
All the gang are here in fine form too. A gender swapped Fagin (Caroline Parker) is every bit the charming deviant she should be and we get the grit and the comedy of the character in the most colourful and gregarious terms. Nancy (Clare-Louise English) and Luna (Rebekah Hill) are a great pairing – the pro and the prodigy arm in arm as a glimpse of the dog’s life led by the ‘indecent’ Victorian woman. Short-lived but well landed comedy lies in the hands of Steph Lacey and Benjamin Wilson’s double act as Mrs Thingummy and Mr Bumble who raise the biggest laughs by all accounts.
In Stephen Collins’ Bill Sikes we find our permanently raging and decidedly unstable villain. Sikes’ eventual loss of control and heinous act are performed with hideous energy by Collins, certifying this production as one which isn’t afraid to dwell on the sinister cruelty of its most horrid characters. Nadeem Islam’s Artful Dodger is a charmer but gets a slight change in function – he’s not so much the trainer in residence who leads Oliver astray as he is a comforting force who teaches Oliver (and by extension, us) how to sign – to finally find a way to be understood more readily. It’s a new dynamic which is both endearing and poignant.
All this hangs together very nicely indeed, with production designs surrounding the cast with a heavy, brooding atmosphere complete with smoke and clanging metal. But while the pace is performatively strenuous in nature as our characters trudge through the days of their difficult lives, there’s little getting away from the inevitable sense of laboured action in a Dickens tale and that is present to an extent here as we head towards the end of the first act. Leach does however manage to keep the sensation impressively at bay for the most part in a production which benefits greatly from condensing and modernising the language to maintain engagement.
In terms of production designs, it’s well worth picking up a programme to learn more about just how dynamic and thoroughly inclusive this production is. Hayley Grindle’s set design to my eyes is simply a great, versatile space filled with atmospheric gloom and plenty of shifting capabilities. Joseff Fletcher’s lighting is perfectly in sync with the grim tone of the piece and projection designs from Akhila Krishnan offer bold visuals which give some of Dickens’ most cruel and damning lines a stronger presence than usual. Features in the programme explain the designs in much more depth, outlining how accessibility has been at the heart of every decision made here – including the importance of integrated audio description which does a far better service to audiences requiring audio description as well as providing a lyrical layer of narrative for those who don’t. And there’s an interesting historical piece on the treatment of the Deaf in the 19th Century too.
Commissioning a reworking of Oliver Twist with accessibility at its heart rather than adapting an adaptation for a cast comprising Deaf, disabled and non-disabled performers proves to have been a resoundingly sound choice here. Not only does the production provide a return to some of the darkest of Dickens’ imaginings after its many more jovial predecessors, but it also offers a mic drop moment of pointed reflection, landing on a challenge and a message for all of us right now.
Oliver Twist is a co-production of Leeds Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon. It plays Leeds Playhouse until March 21st 2020 and you can find tickets here. The production then tours until June 6th 2020 and tickets and information for that can be found using the same link.