Writer: Michael Rosen
Adaptor: Roy Williams
Music: Yaya Bey & Conrad Murray
Director: James Dacre
Shona is struggling. Her beloved mother has died and her father has no work – so they are forced to move from place to place, living on benefits and desperately trying to keep things together. She starts a new school, where her class is studying Oliver Twist. As the story unfolds, unnerving parallels between the book and the lives of her family and her new friends start to appear. Then she’s given a new phone by someone she’s only just met, and when her father’s benefits are cut and money becomes even scarcer, she finds herself increasingly becoming the main character of the tale.
There is no doubt that the concept here is a fine one, for a number of reasons. Some children and young adults may struggle to relate to classic literature, and can’t visualise the stories from simply reading the words on the page – especially when the language used in the books is unfamiliar to modern readers. There’s a clear message here too that poverty has not gone away, for many the risk of homelessness is real, and how much vulnerable people – and young people in particular – are at risk of exploitation. For the intended audience of Unexpected Twist there will be things they recognise being played out before them.
Where it is lacking though, is that the translation of the concept onto the stage is variable – and in particular it’s missing the sort of grittiness that you find in Dickens novels. There’s an edginess running through the piece, as though something may be about to kick off, but you never feel there’s any real risk that you’ll actually see it. The appearance of the characters from the original book from time to time is interesting but they’re never there for long enough to add any real benefit, almost as though the creative team couldn’t decide whether to include them or not.
The cast work hard to make the material work, with an excellent performance in particular from Drew Hylton as Shona. Hylton is seldom off stage and gives a performance that is sensitive and engaging. You can see the road she is starting down, and desperately want her to back away before it is too late. There is good support too from Rosie Hilal as teacher Miss Cavani, working hard to keep her disengaged and disruptive students on the right path. Thomas Vernal shows good empathy as Shona’s Dad and James Meteyard is a suitably threatening Pops.
An undoubted high point of the piece is the music, written by Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray. It has everything from ballads to beatbox, hip hop and soul. It’s performed live on stage by the ten-strong cast using only their voices with no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever. It drives the story forward, with the right music at the right time adding to the sense of unease running through the production.
The static set designed by Frankie Bradshaw which depicts various areas of a school – lockers, gym bars, and classroom – keeps the action moving and it is beautifully lit by Rory Beaton’s design which transforms it well into Dickensian London when needed.
This is a bite-size piece of theatre aimed at a younger audience with a lot going for it – it just needs to be a bit more earthy to be really excellent.
Runs until: 25 February and on tour
Information and tickets for the tour can be found here