Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Sat 4 Mar 2023
Michael Rosen has taken the Charles Dickens classic tale and drawn an analogy with the modern day in this adaption by Roy Williams. By drawing parallels between 1836 workhouse Victorian Britain and the role of children in gang culture and drug distribution he flags up the relevance of the original story. It is a poignant comparison that will add to the cultural capital of the many youngsters who have witnessed the show this week.
I was pleased to be invited to review this situation. It is a musical - but nothing has been recycled from the Lionel Bart material. The richness of the original text has led to a new tale - though the original source material is referred to.
The set designer Frankie Bradshaw offers 3 areas for the performers. A classroom is surrounded by lockers, the tops of the lockers creating a second space. The whole set is surrounded by the wall bars that one found in the school gym. There are occasions when the modern day action is on the lower level whilst the Dickens characters are on the middle level. The wall bars give the musicians a chance to work with the performance.
|(L-R) Drew Hylton, Rosie Hilal, James Meteyard,
Liyah Summers, Polly Lister
The show begins with two performers announcing that everything we hear will produced by the mouths of the performers. There then follows a demonstration of the beatbox talents. Including the sound of a mobile phone ring tone as they point out such devices should be switched off.
|(L-R) Alex Hardie, Liyah Summers, Alexander Lobo Moreno, .
Nadine Rose Johnson, Kate Donnachie
So we have two stories to consider - the Dickens original and the modern day story about childhood poverty. Most actors are covering roles in both worlds thanks to many quick costume changes. For example Drew Hylton is both Shona, a new girl at school whose father is struggling as a single parent on benefits and as Oliver. There are often parallels in character: James Meteyard is both Bill Sykes and Pops, an older gang leader at the centre of criminality. The two characters that are firmly kept in the present are Dad (Thomas Vernal) who is trying his best as a father struggling with the system and teacher Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal) who has an obsession with the book Oliver Twist and tries to point out the stories relevance in the modern world.
|(L-R) Liyah Summers, Nadine Rose Johnson,
Alex Hardie, Kate Donnachie
The Victorian story will be familiar to most readers and Michael Rosen has clever twisted it around a dark tale of poverty in modern Britain - a rich country that has a significant proportion of children living in poverty.
As far as the modern story goes, the official blurb says " Shona and her class are studying the book, Oliver Twist. She’s the new girl in school and is finding it hard to stay out of trouble – much like Oliver himself! When she’s given a new phone by a stranger, she begins to suspect there’s something unusual about the new boys she’s met."
|Alexander Lobo Moreno and Cast of Unexpected Twist
A real stand out element of this production - which makes it both braver than most shows that appear at the Theatre Royal and makes it more successful with a wider range of audiences - is the original music by rising R&B star Yaya Bey and BAC Beatbox Academy’s Conrad Murray. These songs are supplemented, according to the programme, with verses written by the member of the cast who leads in that song. The live performance and relevant lyrics really freshen up a story that deserves a bigger audience. I suspect that the show will become dated if it doesn't evolve with the times, but, right now, it is absolutely relevant to the modern narrative. Special mention to the beatboxer who was keeping the beat going whist taking a kicking on stage.
In order to get the music working, sound designer Leigh Davies has had their work cut out and succeeds in getting the balance right between spoken and musical parts. The lighting design, from Rory Beaton, too turns an effective set into a versatile platform for 2 simultaneous stories as it segues the two worlds together.
|Drew Hylton and Thomas Vernal
Very much a play for today - the tale of Desree (Kate Donnachie), Gazz (Alex Hardie), Shona, Rosie (Nadine Rose Johnson), Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno) and Rasheda (Liyah Summers) trying to make their way in the world, whilst adults such as their parents, teachers and Nan (Polly Lister) try to cope with their problems too, is vibrant piece of theatre. A great script and music, combined with brave direction from James Dacre, and a wonderful cast made this a memorable night at the theatre. It is a real shame that it is on such a short run here in Newcastle.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Photos: Manuel Harlan
The show then goes on tour to: Kingston, Nottingham, Norwich, Coventry, Cheltenham, Salford, Malvern, Wolverhampton, Blackpool, Oxford and Leicester - details can be found on the shows website: https://unexpectedtwistonstage.co.uk/#booktickets