DramaFestive 18/19North East & YorkshireReview

Oliver Twist – Hull Truck Theatre

Writer: Deborah McAndrew

Based on: Charles Dickens

Director: Mark Babych

Set/Lighting: Ciaran Bagnall

Costume Designer: Sian Thomas

Composer: John Biddle

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

In the programme, Deborah McAndrew explains some of the challenges of adapting a novel for the stage. Obviously, the quantity of material is a problem, but so, too, is structure: the episodic nature of Dickens’ novels, in particular, doesn’t work so well on stage. Then there is the question of the occasion and the audience. When Oliver Twist was originally commissioned, it was for a Christmas show, as it is in this revival, and that helps to determine the form as well as the atmosphere.

In Hull Truck’s Oliver Twist her answers to these problems emerge clearly. Ciaran Bagnall’s set is spectacular, with wooden walkways stretching over the audience. At the start, a young woman, tired and sick, makes her way along the walkways through the winter snow – sort of Christmassy and also the start of the Oliver Twist story as she’s his mother, about to give birth in the workhouse. 

The early stages of the story are acted out against a pretty constant medley of Christmas carols, cleverly, if a trifle fussily, arranged by John Biddle. In fact, the major unifying structural feature is Biddle’s music, with plenty of good songs and an undercurrent of incidental music to such an extent that the first half feels almost through-composed. The need to cut down the story-line is most clearly revealed by the absence of Mr. Monks from the cast list, thus removing meaty chunks of the narrative at a stroke.

The approach generally works very well. Mark Babych directs a splendidly fluent and expansive production, with a versatile adult cast and a spirited Young Company. The feel-good default position doesn’t stop McAndrew’s script from bringing in the horrors and squalors of Dickens’ narrative. The singing is excellent and the pre-recorded instrumental music is appealing, if sometimes over-amplified, and backed up by fine live contributions by some of the actors.

There is a pay-off, however. Most of the scenes in the first half are mere snapshots, though some of the characters emerge strongly, such as the self-satisfied oppressors, Mr. Bumble (Ian Jervis) and Mr. Sowerberry (Patrick Bridgman). The second half has more substantial scenes, including several deliciously hypocritical episodes involving Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney (Claire Storey).

Gender-blind and colour-blind casting gives us a refreshingly direct Fagin (Flo Wilson), energetic, practical and with an occasionally surfacing sense of fun. All seven adult actors change roles with no more caricature than Dickens built in, the others members of a well-balanced ensemble being Samuel Edward-Cook, Oghenekevwe Emefe and Lauryn Redding.

The Young Company shows plenty of vigour in complaining about food, stealing handkerchiefs and all the other things young folk do in Oliver Twist and three of its members give remarkably accomplished performances in lead roles. Chiko Chinyadza (Charley), Erin Findlay (Artful Dodger) and, especially, the outstanding Henry Armstrong (Oliver) are all assured and totally convincing. Incidentally, there is an alternative cast for these roles – and no doubt they’re just as good!

Runs until January 5, 2019 | Image: Sam Taylor

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  1. I absolutely disagree with this review, though I accept the writer is a professional in the field. But I’m an average punter who took his wife and their two grandsons for their birthday treat. I feel I wasted £80. The production failed to engage children – my grandsons have read the book and acted in a school production, so they knew the story – but so many children in the audience, especially the under 10s appeared bored stiff. The production failed to start on time, which admittedly is Hull Truck’s fault, and was almost 15 minutes late, simply to cater for latecomers. Worst of all, the soundtrack to which the cast is playing was far too loud, drowning out the singing and spoken voices. How can this not be picked up? I admit that beforehand I did not realise that all of the Lionel Bart songs had been ditched and replaced by a few nondescript songs and Christmas carols. I agree that only actors Jervis and Bridgman showed any depth of experience, the rest of the cast, including the lady playing Fagin, were poor.

  2. Ten minutes in and this was not for me. I can’t think of anything complimentary to say about it. I went with two other adults and my two grandsons, whilst the boys enjoyed it I feel I’m going to have to buy the book to give them to read for them to better understand the storyline. Us adults who have seen many productions over the years, two of us have classed this as one our worst visits to the theatre. The songs were awful and made worse by the fact there were far too many. I thought the script killed the original story and I’m sorry but Fagan is a man and the artful Dodger a boy, why the writer felt the need to change the genders , I haven’t got a clue I may as well have gone to a pantomime. I honestly couldn’t wait for it to be over. Dreadful.

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