Writer: Michael Rosen
Music/Lyrics: Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray
Adaptor: Roy Williams
Director: James Dacre
Since her mum died things haven’t been so great for Shona and her dad. Moving from one rented flat to another, they’re pretty much on their own, surviving on chips and avoiding their unpaid landlords. When Shona lands in a class full of disinterested students at her new school, an inspirational teacher and a nineteenth-century novel might just be her saving grace. Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal) has a great fondness for Oliver Twist, and while she can’t ignore the similarities between the kids in Dickens’s novel and the ones in her class, she’s avoiding the fact that her own domestic circumstances are not so different from Nancy and her abusive lover Bill Sykes.
Adapted from Michael Rosen’s novel, this musical telling of Unexpected Twist deals with some of the darker issues kids have to deal with. It’s all here – the death of a parent, poverty, domestic abuse, drugs and crime – and it doesn’t shy away from any of it. As Shona gets dragged into being on the bottom rung of county lines drug supply, with the promise of cash and, more importantly for her, a phone that she isn’t embarrassed about, her life starts to get more like Oliver’s every day. With a cast playing multiple parallel roles, we start to see the two stories merge. As Miss Cavani explains, it’s always the ones at the top of the chain that benefit the most, and the ones at the bottom who take the fall. While Shona and Oliver’s stories are 185 years apart, they’re horribly similar.
Unexpected Twist has a great score, all produced live with beatboxing and vocals. The cast are spectacular vocalists, creating wonderful layers of sound. They even perform an improvised encore at the end of the show. This isn’t a big showy musical, the stripped back set (Frankie Bradshaw) offers different performance levels for the two stories to appear simultaneously, a structure for performers to climb up which reaches right to the top of the stage, and an array of multi-coloured lights (Rory Beaton) that instantly change the mood. It has a cast of just ten, although their energy and industry make it seem like a lot more. Even when off-stage they are pretty much providing a constant soundtrack. It’s very much an ensemble affair, but both Drew Hylton (Shona/Oliver), Polly Lister (Nan/Fagin) and Alexander Lobo Moreno (Tino/Dodger) deserve a mention for pure vocal power, and James Meteyard (Pops/Bill Sykes) holds everything together with some extraordinary beatboxing skills. It’s all tightly choreographed and Directed by Arielle Smith and James Dacre, using all the levels of the set brilliantly and never losing a second in the pacy scene changes.
There’s much more of Shona’s story than Oliver’s – the latter is mostly hinted at with dream-like, appearances of Fagin’s ragged band – and it seems a shame that there isn’t more balance. The audience is required, to some extent, to fill in the gaps from the bits left out of Dicken’s original. This assumes a knowledge of the story, which, given it’s aimed at young people, is a big assumption. As the show is short (two hours including a fairly lengthy interval) it could stand few more nineteenth century flashbacks. Still, there is a lot here. In addition to the contemporary issues core to the plot, Unexpected Twist even touches on the problematic nature of characterisation and language in classic novels as the class have a short and heated argument about anti-Semitism.
While Unexpected Twist, like Dickens’s novel, has an upbeat ending, it is, at times, a bit of a tough watch, but it’s good to see contemporary musicals, particularly when aimed at a younger audience, dealing with complex issues.
Runs until 7th May 2023