Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy’s, Progress Charles Dickens second novel is also one of his darkest stories. How then do you make such a story acceptable as a Christmas entertainment without destroying the essential fabric of this wonderfully atmospheric story, and its fierce attack on Victorian society’s attitude towards the poor?
Lionel Bart succeeded in this task in his musical Oliver!, while retaining much of the violence within the story. Writer Adam Peck, who also wrote the lyrics to the songs Seamas Carey composed to go with the incidental music for this production, was not prepared to allow as much violence into the plot as Lionel Bart. And he has tagged on a happy ending in which the baddies get their comeuppance, and the goodies look forward to a happy ever after life. Surely, in going down this road, making the show far more palatable to a much younger audience, the spirit of the story of Oliver Twist could be lost.
Miraculously, under the guidance of director Heidi Vaughan, Tobacco Factory Theatre’s new artistic director, and a seven-strong cast, who, with the exception of Defender Nyanhete’s appealing Oliver, change characters with the dexterity of a politician avoiding an awkward question, the story and spirit of Oliver Twist remain intact.
Setting the story in Bristol, allowing many local references to be brought into the story added a lovely touch – and many an extra laugh. Fagin, in this case a wonderfully earthy, naturally cunning Bedminster lady, in the hands of Beverly Rudd, was a perfect foil to Alice Barclay’s quiet sincere Miss Brownlow, safely ensconced in her Clifton villa.
Linking them together is Tom Fletcher, one moment a truly Artful Dodger, the next Oliver’s evil half-brother Monks, and in the twinkling of an eye transformed into Miss Brownlow’s faithful companion Martha. The ultra-quick changes of character lead to quite a few comedy moments, but never at the cost of losing the reality of the character being presented.
Among the four characters created by Dan Gainsford is a judge wanting to send the innocent Oliver to jail for robbing Miss Brownlow – who caused the four year-old sitting next to me to rise to her feet with the angry cry of No! Like all the youngsters in the audience she sat in rapt silence as Dan’s Bill Sykes threatened and bullied anyone who stood in his way. Principal of those was Shiquerra Robertson Harris, beautifully moving as Oliver’s mother Agnes, and full of determination and love as Nancy.
With Alex Heane on keyboard and guitar to assist the changes of mood and atmosphere, this production is skilfully steered between drama and comedy. The mixture certainly suited the older members of the audience – and judging from the attentive response of the very young among them, was not far off hitting the bull’s eye for that generation as well.
Oliver Twist continues to 21st January.
Photographs by Camilla Adams