Alex Clifton, after Charles Dickens
A Storyhouse Original production
December 8, 2021-Jan 16, 2022: 1hr 20min
Please Sir, can I have some more? There is plenty to love about this slick, composed production, which features a great, youthful cast that exudes enthusiasm throughout.
Kash Arshad's production tells the story very well, with a few unexpected twists as it takes us through the dark streets of the Victorian London underworld, breaking some of the usual elements of the show along the way. Some classic features are replaced by grungier, darker tones, perhaps more suited to the tale.
Having said that, one wonders if some of the changes work. Full marks to the director for using a young woman, Cynthia Emeagi, to play Fagin – and interestingly, she offers a mystical side that helps her to coerce her willing band of young thieves. But Dickens's older, more sinister, more manipulative man casts a long shadow over the story that is hard to dismiss.
There is a lot to like though: Keshini Misha's Dodger, for instance, is a great, typically sparky and effervescent character; and I liked too how the production draws out some of Dickens's deeper questions. The script cleverly portrays the apparent conflict between free will and fatalism: would Oliver (played by one of four young performers) ever be able to direct his own destiny, or is he doomed to end up in the hangman’s noose? In this portrayal, Oliver is a passive figure, constantly goaded and manipulated to fulfil the desires others have for him – until he is rescued by a loving, caring family.
This is a central question of the evening: what is family? Fagin's gang is certainly more family-like than the orphanage that supposedly cares for the boy. And why does Nancy (Jessica Jolley), want to mother Oliver so much? Does she see in him the innocence she once had, and has now lost through association with the evil Sikes and life on the streets?
My biggest problem concerns hard-man Sikes (Matthew Ganley, also musical director). For me he must be physically large, violent and intimidating, instilling fear in everyone he meets. There isn't enough of that in this show. Also a little at odds with the original is that Nancy stays alive rather than dying at Sikes's hand. Isn't a major point the idea that Nancy sacrifices herself for Oliver?
Perhaps its real problem is that it is neither one thing nor the other. It isn't a pantomime, and it tells the story well. But it includes pantomimic elements, softening the harsh nature of the original to presumably make it more child-friendly for Christmas. It isn't quite right trying to be both.
But let's not dwell too much on the details: this is above all an optimistic Christmas show, one that leaves us with a genuine feelgood factor.
Info and tickets here