Adapted by Piers Beckley from the novel by Charles Dickens
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
"Please sir, I want some more."
Young Oliver's request is one of the things most people associate with Dickens's story but in this adaptation he doesn't get to say it. The action starts a couple of chapters later when the lad is about to be handed over to undertaker Sowerberry (Terence Mustoo). All earlier incidents are simply reported in their conversation which pitches straight into the story in a version which, though inevitably missing out some episodes and detail, sticks closely to the original tale of the orphan boy taken up to be trained in Fagin's school of boy pick-pockets and thieves and of his eventual return to middle class proprieties and an inheritance from a father he never knew.
Director Ray Shell has emphasised the harshness and violence of the workhouse with a brutal opening which is a foretaste of the brutalities to come. Edward Kingham's Fagin eschews Cruikshank's lank-haired gap-toothed image with its frightening eyes for a wall-eye, a shaved scalp and bare feet with dirty toenails. In a flowered dressing gown and showering endearments he seems benevolent and kindly but when feeling threatened he unleashes frightening anger, the more unsettling from being so sudden.
This is a restrained and convincing performance. It is matched by Sam Nicholl's Bill Sikes which also resists self-conscious melodrama and allows a glimpse of a tenderness his way of life has overlaid.
As Oliver, Gemma Sandzer makes a convincing boy, one whose days in baby-farm and workhouse have taught him how to fit in and placate those who would do him mischief. It is a performance that avoids the sentimental but he is far too well-spoken from a lad with that upbringing - but could accents be hereditary? - most Olivers seem to be much posher than their gang mates.
Alex Hunter gives another restrainted performance as kindly Mr Brownlow; Mark Gillham is a lively Dodger and Amy Merrutia a forceful in-yer-face Nancy - a performance that should gain in nuance when free of first-night nerves. Some of the other performances remind us of the colourfulness of the characters Dickens invented, tending to caricature and the humour becomes somewhat forced, not fitting the rest of the production. Anthony Kernan and Beth Thompson are well-paired as Bumble and Mrs Corney but a looser rein on the comic scenes might remove a tendency to comic signalling and instead offer an effective contrast between the different social worlds. It is easier over a long novel to accept a switch from social realism to comic episode or contrived happy ending. Compacted to play length, differences in style become more obvious and what may be original Dickens can begin to look like parody.
This is a fast moving show with 36 different scenes, each location carefully established. Changes are covered by Paul Jenkin's invigorating music but could be simplified to move things even quicker but in fact I felt sometimes the pace was too persistent. We never really got the chance to feel how different life for Oliver might be like among the less stressed middle-classes.
This production does not offer a clever 'new-reading' but gives us straightforward Dickens, albeit through a series of highlight episodes. Abridgement necessarily means losses: Sikes roaming round the environs of Hampstead for instance, though there is a splendid piece of staging to replace his rooftop nemesis. Sadly, no Bulls-Eye for Sikes either, though a ferocious pit-bull at close quarters might have been too scary with so intimate a staging.
This is most definitely not the musical. In this small venue there's no room for its cast of twenty to form a chorus line and you certainly won't go home singing the scenery. Instead you can expect something much tougher and some very compact story-telling.
At Lion and Unicorn Tuesday - Saturday and Sunday matinees until 10th January 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton