The Leeds Playhouse – until 21 March 2020
Reviewed by Sally Richmond
“Come my dears” and enter into the extraordinary world of Oliver Twist; where you’ll find yourself in the underbelly of Victorian London – in the streets of crime and dark adventure. Presenting one of Dickens’ most famous stories; the fabulous Leeds Playhouse is hosting a most unique and thrilling production this week – brutal, brave and brilliant scene after scene. If you thought Bryony Lavery’s adaptation was going to be typical of the usual ‘Oliver’ (a sweet-cherry- pie- cheeky-chappie singalong), then think again – this is so much better – it’s raw and real!
Hardship, abuse and deprivation are at the core of Oliver Twist and through Amy Leach’s smart and skillful direction and impressive dramaturg from Jenny Sealey, nothing but the true themes (warts and all) of what Dickens fought to expose materialise on stage. It’s hard to watch at times but that’s what makes this production so compelling and unique; as it cuts to the heart of the issues and lays them bare, stripped of any coziness that we so wrongly often associate with Dickens.
Not only is this interpretation of Oliver Twist ingenious in its delivery but it’s the first Playhouse-led Ramps on The Moon production – who feature a large company in which deaf and disabled artists are integrated with non-disabled. Each actor characterised their part perfectly with superb stage personas. Sign language was actually more or less banned in 1880 as human speech was seen as ‘the greatest gift from the almighty’. The idea that unless you could talk, you wouldn’t be able to take the sacraments makes it even more poignant that the actors in Oliver Twist tell the story in the language of BSL. This scandalous signing denial adds a fresh and new rich layer to the tale, which the two Brownlow characters (Rose – Katie Erich and Mr Brownlow – Jack Lord) bring to light through Rose being told to stop signing by her father.
Playing the title role, Broolyn Melvin, portrayed the waif Oliver with a beautiful fragility. When the pauper howls and yelps in pain (both of the physical and mental kind) the lump in your throat might distract you from the tightness of your heartstrings. In contrast, totally commanding the stage with star presence was Fagin, ‘Mrs Fagin’ to be precise and she would definitely have any ‘Mr Fagin’ under her Matriarchal thumb. Like an off-duty Vivienne Westwood, donning a high puffed sleeved red velvet couture gown and pink spiky hair, Caroline Parker MBE portrayed the wicked ‘guardian’ with a sinister sweetness veiling a hard as acrylic nails centre. Simply spectacular in every way! Fagin’s only match was Bill Sikes (Stephen Collins) who was so dark and sinister, brooding and menacing with a psychopathic air that brought chills to the audience as soon as he entered the stage.
Other flawless performances were Nancy (Clare-Louise English) and her sidekick Little Luna (Rebekah Hill). This tragic duo showed the audience the gentle vulnerability of working girls trapped by exhaustion and fear. Their realistic portrayals demonstrated the heart wrenching life many poor Victorian women / children led. The harsh reality of the grooming and abuse that took (takes) place, when after a night of ‘working the streets’, is when Little Luna says she ‘feels cold inside’ and so is then plied with gin to warm her up ready for the next shift.
Nadeem Islam played the ‘Artful’ one with a mischiehievous and an impish edge, making the audience laugh and smile in all the right places. Accompanying Mr Dodger were an ensemble of young apprentices of the criminal kind and all of the gang put maximum effort into every scene giving authentic characterisation with no overplaying at any point. Comedy genius moments came in the form of Mrs Thingummy (Steph Lacey) and Mr Bumble (Benjamin Wilson) who gave us laughs a plenty with their unashamedly greedy behaviour and childish romance.
This Oliver Twist isn’t like a large slice of apple pie with a huge dollop of custard: comforting, warming, familiar but it’s the retelling of a story at its most powerful: it forces you to feel, think and ask the very essential question: “When things were different?” – ‘were’ being the operative word here. In the closing scene the cast re-enter wearing modern day jackets as noises of street cars zoom by. It leaves one pondering the issues highlighted and surely that’s what any great play should do and what Charles Dickens most definitely intended for his readers.