Twist in the portrayal of Dickens's second novel

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Oliver Twist King's Theatre, Edinburgh Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett of the Lyric, Hammersmith

It is difficult to go to a production of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist without any preconceived ideas of what it is going to be like. You expect the stage to be full of dirty-faced children, perhaps bursting into song every now and then, and Oliver to be cheeky and mischievous.

Bearing in mind that there were six adaptations of the book within a year of its publication in 1839, our ideas should not be set in stone.

As the curtain rises on Neil Bartlett's adaptation, which is now on a UK tour, a dozen actors are huddled in the middle of the stage, which is a stage within a stage. It is like a box with trapdoors, footlights and fly ropes. It is dimly lit and effectively conveys the period as well as the different scenes in the play.

There is an element of physical theatre with well choreographed moves, and the period-style music is eerie and sinister, played on the violin, hurdy-gurdy and serpent.

Although the show is aimed at children aged 10 and over, a graphic hanging scene may have the youngest squirming in their seats. For the most part, however, the violent scenes, such as Nancy's death and Oliver's flogging, are done discreetly.

Bartlett uses Dickens's text almost exclusively. The underlying message of good triumphing over evil comes across and is especially well portrayed in the difference in characters between Oliver and Fagin. The unloved orphan is somewhat squeaky clean with his ruffled, blond hair, high-pitched voice and angel face, whereas the master thief has something very pirate-like about him. In fact, he is reminiscent of Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow in the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

And I was not alone in this thought: it was echoed in whispers by the schoolchildren sitting behind me.

For a related education pack with activities and themes for discussion see www.lyric.co.uk

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