By Jay Darcy
Oliver Twist is one of those classics that is timeless but tired. It will be read forever because it’s a good story and its themes remain relevant, but it’s so overdone. Whilst it was fresh at the time, countless authors and artists have told similar tales and explored similar themes.
Oliver Twist will continue to be studied by school kids for eons – because British education only seems to value the works of dead White men – but for it to be enjoyed by kids, it needs a make-over – and what better way to bring it into the 21st century than by turning it into a hip-hop musical?!
Unexpected Twist is, of course, based on the children’s book of the same name by Michael Rosen, one of the most renowned children’s authors in history. It is a radical retelling of Oliver Twist – but, even more radically, it combines two stories in one: Rosen’s story and the Dickens classic that inspired it “twist together, unexpectedly!”
Unexpected Twist follows a teenage girl called Shona (Drew Hylton), who recently lost her mother. She and her father (Thomas Vernal), who recently lost his job, have been moving from place to place and living on chips. Her maternal grandmother (Polly Lister, who also plays Aunt Lorraine), who is involved in some dodgy business, has fallen ill – much like Shona’s dearly departed mother. Shona joins a new school, and her English class is studying Oliver Twist (as if her life was not already hard enough, but hey, at least it’s not Shakespeare). Shona soon gets into the wrong crowd and discovers easy ways of making money – albeit, illegally – much to the chagrin of her father and the concern of her grandmother, who does not want her granddaughter to take after her.
Shona’s life is a reflection of Oliver’s. Her sympathetic English teacher, Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal), who has seen innocent but impressionable children corrupted, attempts to use Oliver Twist to help Shona understand the situation she is in – and how to get out of it. Shona recognises the similarity between Oliver and herself, comparing people in her life to characters from the novel (Cavani is Nancy) and even envisioning characters coming to life – like a psychological horror – whilst insisting that she is not Oliver Twist.
The play rewrites Oliver Twist, retelling the story in a contemporary, urban setting. It brilliantly parallels the two stories; each character is clearly a recreation of an iconic character from Oliver Twist. I am reminded of Black Swan – without the masturbation, for this is a children’s novel!
That said, the play is surprisingly dark, given it’s target audience – and the promo material misleadingly paints a happier picture (quite literally).
The play cleverly interrogates a great deal of sociopolitical issues, including youngsters turning to crime to support themselves and their families financially. But it all felt a little bleak. It began quite fun, with lots of comedy, but it soon took a dark turn. It could have done with a little more comedy throughout; it was a little too heavy and serious, especially for a kids’ show.
The cast is incredible talented – especially vocally. Drew Hylton is wonderful in the leading role of Shona (and Oliver). It’s hard to believe she’s only 18. She’s surely going places.
The strongest vocals, however, come from Kate Donnachie, who plays one of the smaller characters but often takes the lead on ensemble-led performances. Kate, like the other beatboxers in the cast, contributed lyrically to some of the rap and hip-hop songs. It’s rare for a rapper to sing somebody else’s lyrics because rap is such a personal, story-led genre, so it’s great that some of the cast members got to write their own songs.
The songs start off strong. The first few numbers are brilliant. There’s a variety of genres throughout but some of the songs are a little same-y whilst a handful feel half-baked.
I must applaud the choreography, especially the dancing and movement of Kate Donnachie, Nadine Rose Johnson and Liyah Summers, who play a trio of schoolgirls.
The staging is simple but striking. It’s mainly made up of school lockers which double as steps and doors. There are small pieces of set in different scenes, such as a couple of clothing racks when we first meet nan at the markets.
The scene transitions are seamless. On a few occasions, cast members just seem to appear out of nowhere – or vanish without a trace. A few times, scenes overlap, with cast-members in the next scene arriving onstage whilst cast-members in the current scene are just finishing off. It feels a little claustrophobic, like the walls are closing in on Shona, but also surreal – you know, like a story book coming to life?
The post-bow performance, an encore of sorts, saw Donnachie lead the cast in a completely improvised performance, made up of both singing and beatboxing. The cast were split in two, with Hylton and Vernal leading their respective sides with some killer vocals, and Donnachie bouncing around the stage and creating a musical masterpiece.
She then asked a little boy on the front row to conduct the cast, which was incredibly touching. Donnachie then took her job back and the cast soothed us with their vocals before the stage lights went out and the cast vanished into thin air. I hate to say it but this was the most fun part of the play…
Don’t get it twisted, Unexpected Twist is a fresh, raw, radical reimagining that beatboxes new life into a tired classic. Yet, like Oliver Twist himself, it left me asking for more.
With a careful rewrite of both the book and the songs – with a little oom-pah-pah in the gruel – this could be a darn good show.
Unexpected Twist – An Oliver Twisted Tale runs at The Lowry (Lyric Theatre) until May 7 and currently tours the UK until early June, with more dates to be announced.
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