Writer: Debbie Oates
Director: Joe Sumsion
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist – famously associated with the slums and streets of Victorian London – may seem a bold and unusual choice for The Dukes walkabout theatre production in the leafy Williamson Park. However the choice proves to be inspired, with the architecture and environment being used to excellent effect in six scenes set in differing areas of the park. Not only are the locations pleasant and interesting to walk around, they also serve the story well by highlighting the social divides within Dickens’ tale; the Ashton Memorial feels particularly grand when doubling as the home of upper class Mr Brownlow, contrasted with the relative squalor of Fagin’s den, hidden deep within the woods.
Designer Alison Heffernan helps transport the audience back in time with an array of period costumes and sets and director Joe Sumsion expertly makes use of the space to create additional atmosphere, such as Fagin’s gang lingering among the trees as the audience weave their way through the woodland.
Regular Coronation Street writer Debbie Oates successfully condenses a vast novel into six distinct scenes and wisely relocates the action to the North, with accents and local references emphasising this is a story written specifically with the Dukes audience in mind. It is a confident adaptation that invites audiences to forget what they may already know of Oliver Twist and immerse themselves in this version afresh. It is easy to do so with a compelling plot and script that ensures both children and adults of all ages are engrossed, eager to see what will happen next.
The cast are universally strong, often playing multiple rôles. Josie Cerise is mischievous and charismatic as Dodger and impossible not to root for, especially when pitted against Victoria Brazier’s narrow-minded magistrate Mr Fang, whose snobbery leads to plenty of laughs. Brazier shows great versatility by appearing as a cruel and cocky Noah Claypole as well as later giving a touching portrayal of Nancy.
The more violent plot twists, such as the fate of Nancy and her violent boyfriend Bill Sikes, occur offstage and it does feel as though the production is tiptoeing around some of the darker moments on occasion. However, this ensures that the park show continues to be suitable for all of the family which rightly remains a priority of the production team.
Judging by the smiles of both adults and children alike not even the unfortunate weather conditions could dampen the spirits of the audience and it is difficult to imagine an outdoor theatre production as ambitious and imaginative. In Oliver Twist the Dukes have revitalised a classic story for a new audience, ensuring it is an accessible and enjoyable evening for all the family.
Runs until 15th August 2015