I was struggling as to how to begin this review of Oliver Twist as I really didn’t understand its purpose. I then had another look at Leeds Playhouse’s website and saw that it was aimed at an audience aged 11+ I am now more confused than ever.
The play is a co-production between Leeds Playhouse and Ramps on the Moon. It was written by Bryony Lavery and directed by Amy Leach.
Most of the actors have some sort of disability, the majority of them are deaf with Stephen Collins, who plays a very menacing Bill Sikes being visually impaired and Steph Lacey, as Mrs Thingummy and Swifty, a wheelchair user. I was going use the phrase ‘confined to a wheelchair’ but nothing could have been further from the truth as she was about the most animated actor on the stage.
The play is obviously based on the Charles Dickens classic which was one of the first ‘social novels’ although originally published in twenty-four monthly(ish) instalments in the magazine Bentley’s Miscellany between February 1837 and April 1839. Whilst the narrative is fairly close to the book there are some deviations, especially regarding a couple of the characters. The aforementioned Mrs Thingummy originally had two names, that one and Old Sally, and she was in the workhouse when Oliver was born. In this production the names belong to two separate characters which I presume is for practical reasons in that Old Sally/Mrs Thingummy steals a gold locket from Oliver’s mother as she lay dying on the floor after giving birth. This would not have been possible from the wheelchair so her alter ego does it. More about her in a moment.
Hayley Grindle’s set design was very original with a large metal cage above which was a roof, doubling as a second stage. The cage acted as the workhouse, a prison cell, a cellar, a den and a gate. There was also a screen suspended above the cage on which various images were projected, mostly large surtitles of the dialogue. As well as the titles the actors employed BSL along with their spoken words which seemed a bit odd to begin with but soon became part of the experience. It was interesting to see the sign for ’Twist’ when someone spoke the hero’s name. As you would expect, it is conveyed by using the hand in a twisting motion but the gesture was exaggerated when someone was threatening him, adding more terror to the proceedings.
The play opened with all of the actors on a barely lit stage asking the audience to use our imagination to transport us to ‘a city in England a long time ago when things were different’. At that point those who were not involved in the opening scene left the stage. This included Mrs Thigummy who raced off at a speed high to get three points on her licence – in her electric wheelchair! In what I found to be one of the few witty highlights of the evening, the conveyance had been pimped with leather covered arms on each side and a Heath-Robinson boiler on the back to make it look as though it was steam powered.
There were other supposedly comedy interludes but I found them more suited to the 11 part of the recommended audience range than the + part. There was one sequence in particular which I found to be very distasteful. It concerned the other character whose part had been beefed up to conform with the revised narrative, Rose Brownlow, played by Katie Erich. During the scene in question she was having a conversation with her father, Mr Bumble, the Beadle and Mrs Thingummy who had now become Mrs Thigummy-Beadle something which I don’t recall in the book. During a previous court scene we had been informed that Rose was a very able lipreader but in this section she was ordered to use an ear-trumpet by her father and to stop waving her arms about when talking. This resulted in everyone shouting at her, and her not being able to hear them, so the others present would join in and shout at her even louder until the penny dropped. If she could lipread there would have been no need for this. I am no snowflake, far from it, but in this audience member’s opinion it looked a lot like bullying which is not something I feel should be a source of comedy, especially with those of tender years in the theatre who may look upon it as something which is acceptable. I understand that the author, Bryony Lavery, worked closely with the deaf actors and was open to their input so I would imagine that if any of them had raised an objection it would have been suitably addressed. I only write it as I see it.
Something else which deviated from the book was that Fagin was a woman, played by Caroline Parker MBE, sadly she fluffed her lines a couple of times which was accentuated by the surtitles displaying what she should have been saying. I have no problem with a female Fagin as women can be equally manipulative and abusive towards children as men can. One gender reassignment which had me scratching my head though was that Oliver Twist was also played by a woman, Brooklyn Melvin. With Fagin there was no pretence but when Oliver was born he was declared to be a boy and was referred to as such throughout the play. In these days of gender fluidity I looked at the programme for the biography of the actor playing him and they are referred to by the personal pronoun ’she’, so I am still confused as to its significance.
I found the play to be one of two halves – obviously as there was an interval – with the first being a shade lighter than the second although both were pretty grim. Hardly surprising given the original subject matter and the added element of disability separating the haves and have nots even more.
Rose’s father, Mr Brownlow was an academic who had been to a conference in Milan where others of his ilk, none of whom was deaf, decided that sign language should be banned and sufferers from impaired hearing and muteness made to talk. The programme helpfully informs us that this is based on the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan in 1880, so over forty years after the book was written! It was interesting to learn that one reason for this decision was to help the deaf-mute pupil as, unless you could repent your sins at confession verbally, then you would not be absolved of them, resulting in eternal damnation.
I understand that the story needed to be told in a format which could be performed in BSL but I found it to be lacking in any nuance, with the one exception being Nadeem Islam as the Artful Dodger, who brought the part to life. The other characters tended to shout their lines whilst signing, rather than act them, which gave it a less than professional feel. They were all assisted by electronic amplification so there was no need for it.
One aspect of the play which was superb was the puppetry, designed and directed by Rachael Canning. As an infant and small child Oliver Twist was depicted by a couple of puppets, as was Bullseye, Bill Sikes’ vicious dog. They were more like minimalist rag dolls but the operator, Craig Painting, who also played Sowerberry and Fang, made them spring to life. The articulation of Bullseye’s legs was superb.
I hate to be less than complimentary about a production which features such a diverse cast facing myriad problems but, as I said earlier, I am no snowflake and, as the seat prices for this play are the same as all the others this season for the Quarry Theatre, then I expect the end result to be comparable to the rest and, sadly, this wasn’t. If I were to go to see an amateur group then my expectations would have been somewhat lower but this is billed as a co-production between two professional organisations. It is like my going to a concert to experience a performance by the profoundly deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, I would review it in the same way as if it were a hearing performer and cut her no slack whatsoever. Similarly with the brilliant comic actor and scriptwriter, the late Eric Sykes, who was unable to hear in the later part of his career.
Judging by the reception at the end I was in a minority but, as I began by saying, I really didn’t understand its purpose.
Oliver Twist continues at Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse until Saturday, 21st March. For more information and tickets please go to:
All photographs by Anthony Robling