Oliver Twist
Manoel Theatre

When best-loved classics are done and redone over the years from film adaptations to musicals and even animated versions, we have a tendency to pigeon-hole them and their characters in a very specific niche.

... Fagin was excellent and somehow warmed the audience to the character which came across as a loveable rogue with a steadfast personal agenda...- André Delicata

This is often coloured by the vision which the director, production company or lyricist choose to push forward.

So it was most refreshing to find that the adapted dramatisation by Paul Stebbings and Phil Smith of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist for TNT Theatre Britain last weekend, managed to dispel all of the pre-conceived ideas one could possibly have had of such a production.

It was great to move away from a “Food, Glorious Food” frame of mind to a twist that was more faithful to Dickens’s original tone, setting and mood, thanks also to Juliane Kasprzik’s clever costume design.

Granted, the plot line was, as always simplified, but it worked very effectively and exposed the original social commentary on Victorian England and the class system in a much better manner than many previous adaptations have.

What I particularly liked about the script was that while it included the original dry wit and occasionally caustic observations which Dickens is renowned for.

It also departed completely from the original narrative structure by turning Fagin into the primary narrator and having him, on the eve of his execution, converse in retrospect with Mr Brownlow as to who was to blame for the hardship and tragedy in the plot.

Who was to pay the ultimate price? Was it Fagin, who was in a sense a victim and manipulator of the circumstances which befell him, or was it Mr Brownlow, whose social prejudice and moral righteousness set the wheels in motion?

Thomas Johnson’s original score enhanced the distancing from other adaptations and somehow made it darker and more real; an effect also achieved by Arno Scholz and Paul Stebbings’s set design.

Though simple, it managed to channel the vast amount of energy which the cast had into a tight performance by acting as both boundary and extension to their communicative field, giving them much more scope for audience interaction, of which there was quite a bit.

Doubtlessly, the choreography devised by co-director Eric Tresser Lavigne, who also played Fagin and Mrs Corney, was a defining factor in the success of the performance because it added dynamicity and precision of movement without appearing overly planned.

Mr Tresser Lavigne’s Fagin was excellent and somehow warmed the audience to the character which came across as a loveable rogue with a steadfast personal agenda, in much the same way that his other incarnation as Mrs Corney was vicious, mean-spirited and petty.

The cast of five are masters in the art of doubling, with Alan Mirren managing to transmit a different vibe from one quick change to another – from Mr Bumble the beadle, to Bill Sikes and the kindly Mr Brownlow.

His were the most strikingly different transformations

While Rebecca Livermore’s Oliver Twist and Dotty Kultys’s Artful Dodger hit it off from the start, what fascinated me was that they could easily give as much rounding and development to the various little boys which they played along with Jilly O’Dowd.

Oliver was as always, played as an endearing little boy by an earnest Ms Livermoor and the sharp Ms Kultys’s Dodger was the ideal jovial scallywag.

Ms O’Dowd was brilliant as Old Sally and a host of minor street characters while her Nancy lost none of the spunk which she had on the page. Her energy was infectious and it certainly drew the audience right into the plot, rather like director Mr Stebbings, who left his mark on every aspect of the performance.

This was reflected in his close involvement in the production from scripting to set design – someone who invests so much of his time in a project is bound to steer it in the best of directions.

TNT’s Oliver Twist was exactly what theatre should be – engaging, dynamic and consequently edifying and unmissable.

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