Writer: Charles Dickens
Adaptor: Bryony Lavery
Director: Amy Leach
This adaptation of Charles Dickens’s early novel – not the musical version – is a collaboration between Leeds Playhouse and the Ramps on the Moon theatre consortium. It features a large company of deaf and disabled performers integrated with non-disabled artists and aims to make the show as accessible as possible. It achieves this by the clever use of sign language, audio description and captioning. These devices are not add-ons but are integral to the whole and serve both a functional and an artistic purpose.
The newly refurbished Leeds Playhouse offers a fantastic space and atmosphere to portray Dickens’s dark tale of the injustices and hypocrisies of his time, with its savage depiction of the Poor Law system resulting in the degradation of the workhouse, the plight of the poor, violence, neglect, exploitation and misery. Top marks must go to designer Hayley Grindle whose clever set is a multifunctional Victorian-style structure that can be re-imagined as a workhouse, gateway, cellar, court, Fagin’s den, Brownlow’s house, rooftop. All this is set against a winter landscape surmounted by lengths of rope (some tied as a gallows noose) that conjures a feeling of hard labour and danger. You can almost feel the cold as the snow falls and the frost bites. And at the heart of this design is the screen on which the captioning appears: both physically centre stage and central to the performance.
Director Amy Leach and writer Bryony Lavery have come up with a whole new concept of Dickens’s novel whilst retaining its heart and inner message. Deaf culture and deaf history in the Victorian era are very much to the forefront, so that some of the characters are not only played by deaf actors but are actually deaf in the story including Oliver Twist himself. His role as a deaf mute at children’s funerals whilst apprenticed to Sowerberry (Craig Painting) thus makes admirable sense. This sub-text of deafness is a very interesting twist on the original material and is most noticeable in the character of Mr. Brownlow (Jack Lord) and his daughter Rose (Katie Erich) whom afficianados of the novel will immediately recognise has been reimagined from Rose Maylie. Here Brownlow has an avid interest in oralism (the use of speech) as a means of educating the deaf rather than in sign language and comes across as a rigid pedant rather than the kindly old gentleman he is usually portrayed as. He even makes reference to an international congress on the education of the deaf that was held in Milan in 1880 (over 40 years after the novel was actually published) and which overwhelmingly supported the use of articulation over signs.
There are also some female actors cast in male roles such as Fagin and Oliver (there have been many examples of actresses playing traditional male roles such as in some of Shakespeare’s major plays). If you think you may be put off by this then don’t be. It works perfectly well and very quickly you forget about the characters’ gender and concentrate more on their performance.
Benjamin Wilson as Mr. Bumble and Steph Lacey as Mrs. Thingummy (Mrs. Corney in the novel) shine in their roles and make an engaging couple, ridiculous and cruel in equal measure. Stephen Collins (Bill Sikes) is even more menacing for being largely silent or whispering and both his murder of Nancy (Clare-Louise English) and his own demise at the end of a noose are frighteningly realistic. Caroline Parker (Fagin) conveys the cruelty perhaps more than the avarice of the character. Brooklyn Melvin (Oliver) is physically a bit big for the part but otherwise ticks all the right boxes. And mention must be made of the puppet dog Bullseye which whist not exactly Warhorse is nonetheless extremely effective.
This new adaptation, ultimately, is everything an audience expects from Oliver Twist but with a whole new layer added to it. Fans of Dickens should not be put off by this intriguing interpretation and should applaud all those responsible for a thoroughly captivating evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 21st March 2020