Oliver Twist

A new adaptation by David Cottis from the novel by Charles Dickens
Love&Madness Ensemble
Riverside Studios and touring
(2009)

Production photo

We have had several Olivers in recent years, but none I think as true, bracing and faithful as this one. On a compact, multi-levelled wooden jumble of a set, and with a hugely versatile cast of five, the many disparate worlds of Victorian society are rolled together to beautifully dramatic effect. We switch in a blink between drawing-rooms and dirty Cheapside inns, between country ditches and treacherous sooty rooftops. The production knows when to do something stylistically interesting - particularly in the use of lighting, with flailing lamps conjuring Oliver's nightmarish midnight fleeing to London, or a spotlight on tinfoil making the sleepy waves of the Thames under London Bridge - and when, crucially, to keep it simple.

It's not often that such a bare-bones production keeps an audience so gripped - especially when it also has to avoid the pitfalls of "heritage theatre". This ensemble succeed by understanding that nothing grips us more than a rip-roaring tale - and they let nothing get in the way of narrative clarity. Young Oliver Twist, born into a life of workhouse destitution, suffers numerous abuses until he escapes to London, only to be accidentally drawn into a criminal underworld centred around malevolent criminal Bill Sikes, and Fagin, the overlord of a gang of child pickpockets. By several strokes of good luck he escapes the gang, despite their attempts to grab him back and prevent him spilling their secrets - and falls under the protection of the kindly Mr Brownlow who eventually uncovers the mystery of the boy's parentage.

All this may be well known. But what is striking is how this production, sticking so faithfully to the original text, brings out the modern-day parallels. Child exploitation by underworld crime networks is still a huge problem - and we're reminded that Nancy too was recruited to this life very young and has been caught up in it ever since, making us doubt that thieving has been her only activity under Fagin's watch. What's more, the culture of surveillance was just as prevalent - the story is rife with eavesdropping and informing, implying the paranoia of the precariously-placed bosses, and for the petty criminals the inability to ever escape the feelers of the criminal world once they have entered it.

The ensemble cast do a masterful job, whipping up characters, crowd scenes, or the feeling of an entire city in an instant. Multi-tasking Simon Yadoo morphs from crude Mr Bumble into genteel Mr Brownlow literally mid-sentence. And Lucia McAnespie as Nancy is especially superb - ballsy yet vulnerable; compassionate, motherly; conflicted but ultimately loyal to her criminal associates. Here is a young woman who is old beyond her years; her look upon seeing that Sikes knows she has conspired against him, and what it means for her, is truly chilling. Strangely, I would call her the finest Nancy since Shani Wallis in Lionel Bart's musical version of 1968 - a film which in many ways is much murkier than Roman Polanski's recent, show-boatingly "dark" but unengaging film version.

To have the action broken up with comedy interludes and even songs throws the darker sections of the story into even starker relief, and that is the case here too. It's a production not afraid of caricatures, which again is faithful to the Dickensian tradition. Some characters are very broadly delineated and their satirical role very obvious - particularly Mr Bumble and Mr Sowerberry the, ahem, sour undertaker. Mr and Mrs Bumble towards the end are lovely comic relief as the henpecked husband and newly shrewish wife.

A weakness of this approach though is that it makes Oliver himself a real nothing of a character - purely the wronged cherub in a novel of crusading social commentary. Ellie Turner does what she can to inject some spirit into the role, and acquits herself well. The only caricature that does grow wearing in this staging is the Dodger - generally a marvellous character, but here given a modern down-with-da-kids London accent and mannerisms so incongruous that it quickly stopped being original and became a serious distraction.

But David Cottis' adaptation knows too when to give us more than the basic cliché. Preston Clare elevates Fagin above the mere stooping greed and avarice for which the character is known; in a fascinating moment near the climax, Fagin singing a repentant Kaddish for himself adds something else to what can often be perceived as a horrifically outdated, one-note Jewish stereotype.

Dickens is a bedrock of our culture. When his A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843 it was called a "New Testament for the times", because of its radical views on charity and the essential compassion which man owes to fellow man. These values are often forgotten today or joked away as so much Victorian hyperbole. But to compare Oliver Twist with, for example, the gang of forcibly recruited child beggars in Slumdog Millionaire gives just some sense of how topical a tale it still is.

Until 22nd March

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury