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Children, like the character, may be asking for more...



Review by David Munro

ABANDON all memories of the David Lean or Carol Reed films, not to mention Lionel Bart's musical travesty. In this production of Oliver Twist, the adaptor/director, Neil Bartlett, has returned to the original novel and utilised Dickens' own words in the dialogue and connecting narrative - beautifully presented by Owen Sharpe, in the character of the Artful Dodger.

In the notes on production, contained in the programme/script - which I strongly advise anyone going to get - Mr Bartlett explains his thoughts and motivations for the production.

In essence, he visualises it as a Victorian melodrama performed in a peepshow, so the main action is performed in a large box like structure, complete with traps, sliding panels and all the other stage paraphernalia, upon which melodrama relied.

As in any Victorian travelling troupe of players - and the name, Crummles, immediately springs to mind - all the parts are played by company which results, for example, in the player allocated Bill Sikes, also playing Mrs Sowerberry - an authentic and amusing touch I much appreciated.

And as melodrama, it succeeds admirably, my only reservation with Mr Bartlett's concept was the set. It was cavernous and grim, which suited the workhouse, prison and Fagin's den, etc, but seemed inappropriate for the scenes in the house of Mr Brownlow, where the positioning of a couple of chairs and a table did not exemplify, to me, the escape of Oliver, from the dark and dreary past, into his ultimately bright future.

My recollection is that peepshows were based on the Pollock Penny Plain, two pence coloured cutouts and interspersed bright sets with the more gloomy ones, but I may be wrong.

I appreciate that Mr Bartlett, like Dickens, was anxious to emphasise the more sinister and reprehensible aspects of Victorian society, and to highlight social inequalities and miseries of the time, but, as Dickens, as quoted by Mr Bartlett's script, intended that the tale represent 'good surviving, and triumphing at the last', it is a sentiment which seemed somewhat inappropriate when uttered in a set more fitting for a production of Brecht or Capek.

However, having registered my minor cavil, I can only applaud, wholeheartedly, the rest of the production and concept. Blessed, unlike Mr Crummles, with a professional and versatile cast, the scenes and characters' changes sped by.

Fagin is the pivot of, and, as played by Michael Feast, the mainspring of the plot.

His descent into the more outrageous excesses of melodramatic ranting and raving were an example of how such scenes can be played without going OTT and embarrassing the audience.

To fit such outbursts into a performance of a Fagin ,who was sinister and full of oily charm at the same time, and still maintain the completeness of the character, was a theatrical delight I shall savour for many a long day.

I did, however, wonder whether he might have escaped the gallows and started a new life as Captain Jack Sparrow, on the Black Pearl, a character to whom he bore an uncanny resemblance, both physically and vocally.

Oliver, which is a cardboard character, was fleshed out well by Jordan Metcalfe, who looked the part and managed to maintain his angelic aura of innocence, despite the buffets of fate and the other members of the cast.

Bill Sikes, Nicholas Asbury - Mrs Sowerberry as well you may remember! - was suitably sinister and brutal, and although I missed his dog, you can't have everything and his was a good performance none the less.

As you will have gathered, the part of The Dodger was combined with that of narrator, and Owen Sharpe alternated between bonhomie and charm, as the latter and the more raffish character of the former with ease, making the Dodger, a criminal, but with humanity, which was highlighted in the scene where he realises the consequences of his having reported Nancy's conversation with Mr Brownlow.

A nice and effective touch and not one I remember from the book.

Kellie Shirley made Nancy's seamier side seem touching and her vulnerability was appealing. Her scenes with the Brownlows were natural and her rejection of Miss Brownlow's offer of money invested the character with the dignity that the rest of her scenes had denied her.

Brigid Zengeni and Paul Hunter did well in the surefire parts of the Bumbles, as did Thomas Wheatley and Louise Yates, as the Brownlows, and Derek Hutchinson, as Mr Sowerberry and Mr Grimwig.

The action was intercut with A Cappella singing by the united cast of comments from the book and on the action.

Gregor Henderson-Begg, Nicholas Goode and Ryan Early, other members of Fagin's gang, also played Victorian instruments, which I see from the programme were Serpent, Violin and Hurdy Gurdy, and their playing of these instruments underscored the action from time to time, as unobtrusive background music.

All the cast 'muck in' for the playing of minor characters and crowd scenes with finesse, and the scene changes, such as they are, do not obtrude too much on the action, even though it may be something of a shock when Mr Brownlow's drawing room suite appears in Fagin's Kitchen!

But, never mind, it is all part and parcel of the fun of the evening and of Mr Bartlett's desire to replicate how such a performance would have appeared to contemporary readers of the novel.

Although there are scenes of violence, these all take place off-stage, so it is an ideal play for children, particularly if they are to be introduced to the pleasures of 'Real Theatre'.

In fact, I would thoroughly recommend it to parents with the caveat that there is a strong chance that when they leave the theatre, like Oliver, their children will ask for more.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, adapted by Neil Bartlett; Music, Gerard McBurney and Simon Deacon;
Director, Neil Bartlett; Design, Rae Smith; Lighting, Paule Constable; Sound, Nick Manning; Movement, Struan Leslie.
CAST: Nicholas Asbury; Ryan Early; Michael Feast; Nicholas Goode; Gregor Henderson-Begg; Paul Hunter; Derek Hutchinson; Jordan Metcalfe; Owen Sharpe; Kellie Shirley; Thomas Wheatley; Louise Yates; Brigid Zengeni.
Producer: Lyric Theatre, King Street, Hammersmith, London, W6 0QL.
Fri, Feb 20 - Sat, Mar 27, 2004 - 7.30pm. Matinees Sat, Feb 28 & Mar 13 & 27 at 2.30pm.
Box Office 08700 500 511

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