"All human life is there"
by Chris Bearne for remotegoat on 24/12/09

Take a black box ; in it re-imagine a Dickens classic (Piers Beckley's adaptation), have talented actors breathe new life into well-known characters, give all seven deadly sins and all the cardinal virtues their full weight and you produce a compelling package : the Lion & Unicorn's resident company's bold climax to an admirable first full year.

It's hard to imagine it's been that long since Giant Olive's visceral Christmas Carol and Edward Kingham's redemption as Scrooge. No such luck this time : his equally compelling Fagin, wall-eyed, slavering, repellent, is gibbet-bound for sure. Oliver Twist is a tale of the salvation of the virtuous and the perdition of the evildoer. In this, it shares the morality of panto, perfect for an end-of-the-year show. But this is no panto, quote "no singing, no dancing". Add to that, no gags? Not quite, read on … and certainly not "no music" : this production is handsomely sustained by a well gauged original score by Paul Jenkins.

Like A Christmas Carol, this is an ensemble piece : twenty bodies, a few props and clever lighting recreate Dickens' brutish London (under)world, whirling us through three dozen scenes, never losing pace or urgency. There are performances to be relished, notably Kingham's dangerously spry Fagin and Gemma Sandzer's waifish but feisty Oliver. The word iconic is becoming a cliche, but here it applies : there are moments that capture the very image of cruelty. Amy Merrutia found an inspired balance between Nancy's earthy likeability and heroic rectitude. Her end, at the hands of Sam Nicholls' nasty but somehow winning Bill Sikes, was truly shocking. Sikes' own bad end, beautifully re-imagined, was almost worth the ticket in its own right. Then we have the Bumbles-Double-Act, light relief excellently realised by Beth Thompson and Anthony Kernan, Mark Gillham's irresistible Dodger … and so on.

Alex Hunter never fails to produce an engaging and interesting performance, and his reading of Mr Brownlow is no exception : flask-tippling, anxious, vulnerable, but why the cod Brownlow/Grimwig stand-offs? Great fun, but too much, edging into different - well, panto - territory. A problem, this : is it a "doing Dickens" thing? Many of his characters verge on the grotesque, it's true, but the stories are deeply grounded in real society and have the most earnest of moral objectives. They need to be played as written, and in the principal characters we usually had that (although Kingham's villainous child-exploiter seemed sometimes - albeit very compellingly - to assume a darker mantle of paedophilia than his original). Around them, though, the appetite for caricature, indeed mugging, seemed at times over-indulged. Put this down to the brio of an ensemble well endowed with new theatrical blood, but a little less of that and a bit more vocal clarity would have told the story better. A personal quibble, that : this show will be seen by hundreds - it deserves thousands.

Chris Bearne

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