Fagin's Last Hour
Two Sisters Arts Centre, Trimley St Mary, nr Felixstowe, Suffolk
As we are all aware, there are very few venues open for business at the moment. Two Sisters Arts Centre on the Suffolk coast is one that’s bucking the trend.
This pocket-sized venue can hold 35 in a COVID-safe environment within what was previously a village church. Adapted to a cozy, welcoming arts venue with lighting rig, stage, bar and green room, with audience catered for at pre-bookable tables, they have been open since September with a variety of professional events including jazz nights, folk evenings, classical concerts and drama.
Last night, they welcomed James Hyland, an incredibly powerful actor, with his one-man show based on the story of Charles Dickens’s well-loved novel Oliver Twist. But this is a very different take on it than one might expect.
Told from the viewpoint of Fagin during his last hour on this earth as he awaits his hanging, this is a visceral, absorbing and at times disturbingly violent retelling of this well-known tale performed by an actor at the top of his game. But it’s not just Fagin he plays. With just a twist of his shoulders, he becomes many of the other characters in the story and with his powerful stage presence draws you into their world.
On a minimalistic set and with no props or costume change, Hyland embodies every character from Fagin through to Bill Sykes, the Artful Dodger and Nancy as he tells Fagin’s story, from the point of meeting Oliver to the dreadful demise of Nancy at the hands of an out-of-control Sykes, and his own final trial and sentence. And during it, Hyland asks us questions about the nature of society and the roles of rich vs poor. Has anything changed since Dickens’s day or is it still the case of ‘money talks’? And does any society produce the characters it deserves ?
Emerging suddenly from the dark, we find Fagin in his cell at Newgate and the performance gets off to a cracking start as he pours out his dread of the noose and his terror at what is to come. Hyland has a way of costuming that transforms his appearance and yet gives him the freedom to explore the other characters too.
He is perfect for Fagin, a man scraping by on the seat of his pants, a rough man living on the fringe of the worst of society. We may have been lulled into a false sense of security by Lionel Bart’s take on the man but Hyland goes back to the source material and plays him how Dickens originally wrote him, not as a loveable rough but as a scoundrel, a cheat and a thief whose concern is really for nobody but himself.
Equally, the other characters come across as more starkly drawn: Bill Sykes the hard-bitten, hard-hearted petty criminal with a vicious streak and an uncontrollable temper, the Artful Dodger ducking and diving to save his own skin and Oliver helplessly caught up in the machinations of these brutish men.
Only Nancy comes across as holding on to any humanity and sympathetic feelings towards the poor abused orphan, but she is still in thrall to the man who continually abuses her and she ultimately pays for it with her life.
All of this played out within an hour on a small stage, yet gripping, absorbing and shocking in equal measure.
This production is not for the faint hearted; Hyland pulls no punches in the retelling of this horror story and leaves no detail out of the subsequent and inevitable death of Nancy. But if you want Dickens as it is meant to be, warts and all, and you want a masterclass in character acting, then this show is a must-see.
Let’s hope more venues start to open soon so that James can once again go back to touring this incredible show.
Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes