Fagin’s Last Hour – White Bear Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: James Hyland

Director: Phil Lowe

This really is Isaac Fagin’s last hour.

We meet Charles Dickens’ famous petty criminal as he waits in a filthy cell for someone to come and take him to be hanged.

He whimpers and raves – at the walls, at circumstance, at us – and recounts and re-enacts the story of what brought him here. He takes us through everything, like a flashback, from when he meets young Oliver Twist, through Twist’s brief stay with the wealthy Mr. Brownlow and subsequent return to Fagin by local prostitute, and former pupil, Nancy. From there, his narrative takes a turn for the violent with Nancy’s burglar boyfriend Bill taking more of an interest in the boy. When Bill is led to believe he has been betrayed to the police by Nancy, he murders her brutally. It’s his participation in this murder that lands Fagin a morning appointment with the hangman.

All characters are played by James Hyland, the show’s sole performer. Thankfully, the shifts from persona to persona smoothly and clearly – there’s rarely a moment when we don’t know who is speaking.

His speech while as Fagin, Bill and all the others is a delight. The variations in pitch, volume, speed, tenor, and every other quality creates most of the piece’s audio experience. Some moments are highlighted by Chris Warner’s music and sound design, but it’s Hyland’s vocal performance that creates the atmosphere in his jail cell and his rotten lair. He’s unclean, not just unwashed, and clad in a highly effective collection of woollen rags that could once have been nice clothes for a Victorian street character, but years of grime have turned disgusting. Designed by Louise Sullivan, this is an outfit that really tells a story.

Hyland’s booming vocals and looming physical presence feel a little too strong for how Fagin’s portrayed – frail and ill on the floor of a bare cell, a pitiful and pathetic man. Maybe, however, it’s the last burst of strength, a release of his life’s energy before it’s all over. This is an energetic, interesting, and vigorous performance, and has earned the benefit of the doubt.

An hour in Fagin/Hyland’s company provides little new information on the Dickens character, and largely shows one that’s familiar to us who know the book or subsequent films. However, Hyland’s absorbing and bold performance and portrayal of the man results in a piece of theatre that easily holds every wisp of attention available in the room.

Runs until 21 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Easily holds every wisp of attention

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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