Twenty-odd years ago, David Edgar set the standard for stage adaptations of Dickens with his Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Neil Bartlettís Oliver Twist is halfway in the same mould: he too uses an ensemble company with several roles each, and who speak directly to the audience as well as to each other. But where Edgar went for brisk bustle, Bartlett is all brooding atmospherics.
The curtain rises on a dozen actors in a knot, on a dimly lit set built like a smallish box (complete with ceiling) full of doors, trapdoors and levers. Itís a shockingly strange vision. It looks a little like some of the weirder bits of Polish theatre, and a little like the Lyricís next show, the now-legendary Shockheaded Peter. And it establishes a grim, shadowy tone for the next two hours and more.
The story of young Oliverís kidnap by a gang of street thieves and his rescue from them (twice) is often more gruesome than usual for Dickens. Bartlett doesnít shy away from this, but realises that the best way to get shivers is to suggest horrors rather than to portray them explicitly. The action freezes at such moments, or takes place offstage, or is half-hidden, and is more disquieting for it.
But it wouldnít be Dickens without comedy and broad character work jostling hard by all this gloom. Paul Hunterís comic playing style is well suited to his role as Mr Bumble the beadle, and the gang of boy thieves also raise a number of chuckles, led by an Artful Dodger with a Mohawk haircut. Michael Feast mostly avoids the worst perils of the part of Fagin by staying this side of caricature Jewishness.
The music is also in the authentic period style and also a bit unsettling, arranged as it is for instruments including a hurdy-gurdy and a serpent. Thereís not a great deal of momentum to the performance, it must be said; you get caught up not in events but in the whole texture of the presentation. At first this may appear a weakness, but gradually it seeps in and you find yourself eerily fascinated by it all.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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