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A CurtainUp Review
Oliver Twist

There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast; Even when that something is but one wretched, breathless boy
--- Bystanders
Oliver Twist
Jordan Metcalfe as Oliver
(Photo: Mark Douet)
Neil Bartlett may be remembered as much for his authorship of his brilliant adaptations as for his versatile direction. As Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, he celebrates ten years with another Dickensian adaptation to follow 2002's A Christmas Carol, this time the tale of the orphan boy who dared to ask for more, Oliver Twist. In a dark and bare production Bartlett conjures the dingy, seedy atmosphere of Victorian London with a small team of actors rotating many parts. This is theatre at its most evocative, imaginative and historical, Dickens' characters leaping off the written page onto the Lyric's stage.

Bartlett's production is full of new and original references. The posters advertising the sale of Oliver to Sowerberry's, the firm of Funeral Directors look like the posters advertising slave auctions and we are reminded of how close to slavery existence was for these orphan boys from the workhouse. Michael Feast's mysterious, wild eyed Fagin is a character more inspired by the Russian mad monk Rasputin than Jewish.

Owen Sharpe is the Artful Dodger, his Mohican haircut looking totally in place in Dickensian London, narrates much of the action. His setting of the scene, always in character as the charming criminal, amuses and involves.

In the middle of all these darkly colourful and over the top characters is the figure of the innocent child, a blonde, quivering, helpless Oliver (Jordan Metcalfe), his predicament as deeply moving as anything I have seen on the stage for some time. It is this contrast between the contrived and the natural which lifts this production out of the ordinary. We are frightened for him being made to sleep with the coffins in the Sowerberry's, we feel his exhaustion as he walks to London, the director choosing to knock him down again and again as the narrator describes this journey where he walked for seven days until he was weak from exhaustion and his feet were bleeding. And just as he seems to have fallen on good times in the home of the benevolent Mr Brownlow (Thomas Wheatley) he is snatched back into the danger of Fagin's world.

Michael Feast's Fagin is a glittering gypsy receiver of stolen goods in this city filled with thieves and chancers. Feast dominates his scenes, his eyes flashing with avarice. Kellie Shirley's Nancy is handicapped by a prostitute's war paint with bright red cheeks which makes her always two dimensional. Nicholas Asbury's normal looking Bill Sikes is underplayed as the epitome of evil and suffers from the one thing missing in Bartlett's production, his dog.

The horrific murder of Nancy is not recreated in full but a simple tableau shows Bill's raised arm above Nancy's lifeless body. Sikes' torso falls through a trap door in the flies as we hear a description of how he hangs himself by accident while trying to escape. Bartlett underlines the power hierarchy of the underworld -- Fagin bullies the boys, while at the top of the heap, Bill Sikes intimidates Fagin.

The music is largely unaccompanied and in contrast to the Lionel Bart musical, the tunes are rough and difficult and atonal although we are told that these come from Victorian music hall. An out of tune violin and a tinny hurdy gurdy are all that is allowed in this play where poverty pervades, stifling any musical celebration. In Fagin's kitchen, the result is a cacophony as Fagin runs his enthusiastic class in the "game" of picking pockets.

Throughout this production, is a picture of London. Dodger repeats the place names which still exist in a litany of journeying like Pinter. "Chertsey - Bethnal Green, Finsbury Square, Smithfield, Holborn, Hyde Park Corner, Kensington, Hammersmith, Chiswick, Kew Bridge, Brentford, Shepperton, Chertsey." The play finishes as it began with a reference to childhood. "It is a solemn thing to hear, in a darkened room, the voice of a child".

Oliver Twist
Written by Charles Dickens
Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett

Starring: Michael Feast, Owen Sharpe
With: Nicholas Asbury, Ryan Early, Nicholas Goode, Gregor Henderson-Begg, Paul Hunter, Derek Hutchinson, Jordan Metcalfe, Kellie Shirley, Thomas Wheatley, Louise Yates, Brigid Zengeni
Designer: Rae Smith
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound: Nick Manning
Music: Garard McBurney
Movement: Struan Leslie
Running time: Two and a half hours with one interval
Box Office: 08700 500 511
Booking to 27th March 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th February 2004 Performance at the Lyric, King Street, Hammersmith London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)
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