Unexpected Twist – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Michael Rosen

Adaptor: Roy Williams

Music: Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray

Director: James Dacre

It’s been tough for Shona since Mum died. Dad lost his job and is getting forgetful so she has had to grow up fast. Debts are piling up and they are living in a procession of ever-smaller digs eating meals of ever-smaller bags of chips.

With the move comes a new school, and Shona joins Miss Cavani’s class, which is reluctantly studying Oliver Twist. When they realise Shona doesn’t have a phone, classmates Tino and Gazz draw her into a shady world in which she is rewarded for running errands for the dodgy Pops. As the class discusses Oliver Twist, characters from the book come alive and it’s clear that Shona’s life is echoing Oliver’s among Fagin’s gang. But unlike him, she doesn’t have a secret rich family to rescue her, and Miss Cavani, well-meaning as she is, has her own problems to contend with.

This is a very contemporary story, written with youngsters in mind. There’s plenty of music and songs, but this is not a traditional musical at all. As we’re told at the outset, all of the sounds are produced by the cast, with rhythm and melody created by beatboxing. And the soundscape that pervades the whole is, indeed, very well done, even if some of the rapping goes by so fast it’s sometimes tricky to pick out all of the words – though the sentiments are always crystal clear.

The cast, especially but not exclusively, Drew Hylton (Shona) and Rosie Hilal (Miss Cavani) have superb voices, in Hylton’s case particularly, with a nod to the blues. Alex Hardie as Gazz also produces much of the beatboxing, and the shady underworld characters – Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno) and Pops (James Meteyard) rap convincingly. Classmates Desree (Kate Donnachie), Rosie (Nadine Rose Johnson) and Rasheda (Liyah Summers) act almost as a Greek chorus, often providing sweet harmonies.

Throughout, Hylton brings us Shona’s strengths and weaknesses clearly. Sharp as a tack, she is nevertheless seduced by the idea of material goods – her new phone being a case in point – and we see how she could be led that way. Meteyard brings an ominous sense to Pops; one really feels he is a tightly coiled spring which could snap at any time. Anchoring Shona is her dad, played by Thomas Vernal, who brings the right level of confusion to all he does; and her nan (Polly Lister) who turns out to have an interesting backstory even as she doles out life advice.

Frankie Bradshaw’s set is multi-level and starkly lit by Rory Beaton. It allows for the separation of Shona’s reality from the events of the book, even as it underlines the parallels. James Dacre’s direction is tight and, along with Arielle Smith’s contemporary choreography, it drives the action along briskly, but the unremitting soundscape and the use of rap and beatboxing throughout does limit the light and shade in the production. Even the more reflective moments are noisily driven home. The resolution is perhaps a touch twee within this otherwise streetwise production. But these criticisms come from an adult perspective; this is a production that speaks to its target audience and they enjoy the contemporary references and storytelling, which, one can hope, will introduce them to more of what theatre can do and say.

Runs until: 15 April 2023 and on tour

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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