Oliver Twist

Bryony Lavery, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens
Leeds Playhouse with Ramps on the Moon
The Quarry, Leeds Playhouse
to

“It is not a musical,” comes the reminder from Leeds Playhouse about this “dark” and “brutal” story. A useful warning: if you expect the shiny-faced cheeky-chappy urchins of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical (or its 1968 Carol Reed film incarnation), you’re likely to come away from Bryony Lavery’s brooding new adaptation feeling pretty bruised.

This is the latest production in the Ramps on the Moon initiative, a consortium of theatres putting main-stage resources and boundless creativity behind a mission to improve access to the theatre, not as an add-on to the art but as integral to its very texture and making.

What I’ve seen of the work so far has been excellent, particularly a memorable Our Country’s Good, and Oliver Twist proves no exception. Working with a large team of theatre-makers, including Deaf and disabled performers, director Amy Leach has crafted a show which inventively employs a range of communicative methods in telling a clear and compelling story.

Oliver Twist was one of Dickens’s first novels, and, characteristically, the story blends the documentation of the grim realities of life in the workhouse and on the streets with the presentation of exaggeratedly caricatured comic figures. Lavery’s fleet adaptation nimbly portrays quite a range of grotesques, but it generally focuses on the brutality of this life rather than on the comedy to be found within it.

It opens with a characteristic celebration from Lavery of the power of the audience’s imagination: an invitation to “come with us in your wonderful minds” and join the cast of thirteen “shapeshifting” actors in a world of poverty and want, somewhere in England.

Oliver (Brooklyn Melvin) is born—and nearly dies—in the workhouse to an unmarried mother who herself dies in childbirth, and from then on he suffers beatings and humiliations at the hands of those who claim to be offering charity. In this version, Oliver’s isolation and maltreatment is exacerbated by his inability to hear or to communicate in speech. Drawing on historical attitudes to deafness, including reference to the 1880 Milan Conference banning the teaching of sign language in schools (insisting instead that oral communication be enforced), this addition makes sense in context and adds a rich and often poignant texture to the story.

Particularly effective is Oliver’s meeting with the Artful Dodger (Nadeem Islam, who strikes absolutely the right note of charming proficiency at dubious undertakings). The Dodger welcomes Oliver to London and starts teaching him sign language, so the feeling of finding a sympathetic figure at last is emphasised by this new ability to communicate. The character of Oliver is something of a blank canvas, but when Melvin does call upon emotional reserves of joy or anguish, it’s powerfully effective.

Throughout the production, care has been taken to ensure that the storytelling works across visual and aural mediums, and this close attention works to support the character and plot detail. So Bill Sikes (Stephen Collins) hisses and growls, exerting his status by laying down the law for how others communicate in his presence: “no talking, only signs”. One of the most touching subplots is that of the Brownlow family who take Oliver in: the patriarch (Jack Lord) has embraced the findings of the Milan Conference in educating his daughter Rose (Katie Erich), who consequently struggles to follow conversations but is liberated when signing with Oliver.

Steph Lacey and Benjamin Wilson provide the most comic double act of the show, though they also do great service in a range of less noticeable but still impressive moments. Rebekah Hill as Mrs Mann is a suitably imperious superintendent of orphan children, and Craig Panting is great in a number of roles, with a controlled physicality which serves well in puppeteering Sikes’s dog, Bullseye.

Mitesh Soni makes a plausible antagonist for Oliver when our hero is first sold into service at a funeral parlour, as well as a more likeable ragamuffin as part of Fagin’s street gang. Katie Erich is very impressive in her professional debut, playing Rose with a delightful calm and control of the stage.

The set is a wonder, too. Hayley Grindle has taken a high-contrast approach to the backdrop and costumes, inspired by the benefit this has for visually-impaired audience members. It is an impressive set on its own terms, though, the lightly snow-flecked ground shifting under Joseff Fletcher’s lighting to serve just as well as the grubby floor of the workhouse or the gleaming cleanliness of the Brownlow home. A large central scaffold proves a flexible structure, acting as climbing frame, balcony, cellar entrance and workhouse gates alike. It also houses a large screen, on which beautiful captioning appears in support of much of the dialogue, fading and flickering like an early cinematic experiment.

Occasionally, moments of the drama seem stretched, particularly as the storytelling is so concise and effective elsewhere. For instance, Fagin, who’s excellently portrayed by Caroline Parker, doesn’t ever quite get a moment to set up her driving motivations—money and self-preservation, we infer—and Parker has to do a lot with some scanty scenes in which she drools over her prized collection of jewellery and other swag. Nancy, though a key driver of the later plot and similarly well-depicted by Clare-Louise English, is a bit of a cipher, her relationship with Bill Sikes unclear until the end.

These are quibbles, though, in the context of a show which is big, powerful, entertaining and moving. Leach’s approach is dazzlingly inventive and bighearted, offering countless examples of how to work inclusively in the warp and weft of the piece. All this while not flinching in depicting some painful experiences of extreme poverty, discrimination and exclusion—many of which, it’s implied, sadly still have their echoes nearly 200 years on.

Reviewer: Mark Smith