Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Olivia Race
Directors: Olivia Race, Samuel McKay
Composer: Robert Collins
Musical Director: Claire-Marie Seddon
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Olivia Race’s concept for Front Room Productions is imaginative and engaging. Oliver Twist is acted out in Leeds’ Kirkgate Market (Edwardian, not Victorian, but with a suitable period feel), an audience of 40 promenading through various locations in the market as a dozen or so short scenes tell the story in about an hour. The audience follows the actor with the lamp, whoever that is at the time, and discovers other characters or scenes set up with simple props while all the time a small band of clarinet, viola and trombone leads the promenade or supplies attractively atmospheric music from a concealed position – around the corner in the next row of stalls, maybe.
How to condense a 400-page novel into an hour’s stage time? Race’s approach is sensibly pragmatic: she concentrates on one part of the story, cutting down the characters essentially to five. Oliver comes to London, meets up with the Artful Dodger and Fagin, tries to escape to Mr. Brownlow (unseen), is re-captured and takes part in the failed robbery with Bill Sykes. The action ends with Bill’s killing of Nancy after she betrays him and Fagin. Outside those five characters, only Rose Maylie appears (doubling with the Artful Dodger) in a contrived and largely undramatic scene with Nancy that sets up the final confrontation.
A Prologue, delivered with a sort of aggressive pathos by Georgina Franklin as the ragged workhouse boy escaping to London, gives a very brief summary of Oliver’s life up till then – a surprised member of the audience finds himself being asked for more gruel – but any hopes of seeing the egregious Mr. Bumble are doomed to disappointment. Finally Franklin, smartly dressed, smugly assured, rounds the whole thing off, but wisely Race spares us the ramifications of the plots and sub-plots surrounding Mr. Monks.
In contrast to the excellent Franklin’s ability to engage with the audience, the other cross-gender piece of casting comes over as rather cartoonish. Riana Duce is suitably perky and animated as the Artful Dodger, but her mannered movements and perpetual smile remove any hint of sympathy with the character. Leslie Davidoff’s limping grotesque of a Fagin is mercifully free of the kind of comic appeal Lionel Bart generated for the character but rather over-fond of deep-throated growls and menacing whispers that carry none too well. James Barrett’s boorishly blustering Bill Sykes and Olivia Race’s feisty Nancy work well together.
Race’s script mostly keeps it simple and the individual scenes are less memorable than the overall experience, with Robert Collins’ perfectly judged music creating the necessary moods. Kirkgate Market is something of a star, too: the shop sign “Oliver’s” is a boon, though the 1840s parish boy would probably have found signs for Thai and Lebanese food perplexing.
Runs until 28 October 2017 | Image: Contributed