King's Theatre. Edinburgh, Tue 27 Apr-Sat 1 May Let’s start off by saying what Oliver Twist is not. It is not the musical with dancing urchins and cheery melodies. And it is not a Merchant-Ivory- style costume drama that paints a politically neutral vision of the past. Rather, it is a brilliantly staged adaptation that goes to the dark heart of Charles Dickens‘ original novel and comes up with something fresh and penetrating.
Being directed by Neil Bartlett, whose Gloria was one of the most arresting touring companies of the late 805 and early 905, it is an altogether better class of adaptation. Now the artistic director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith theatre, Barlett has been honing his skills as a creator of work that has both popular and critical approbation.
‘Artistically I haven’t been influenced by Oliver." he says. ‘I didn’t sit in the rehearsal room thinking, “How did they do this in the movie?” Personally, I hugely enjoyed that film and grew up with it as a kid. This isn’t the anti- Bart production. But this was me and my collaborators going back to the novel.’
If you recognise some of the lines (‘Please sir. Can I have some more?’) it’s because Dickens wrote them first. If some of it feels unfamiliar, it’s because Dickens was a lot darker than your average BBC period drama allows. ‘The thing about those costume dramas is that they are very heritage industry,’ says Bartlett. ‘lt’s about how we all know, love and recognise this and it’s safe — whereas this book isn’t safe. It’s surprising and funny in all the wrong places and frightening in completely unexpected places.’
The thing that also survives intact is Dickens‘ ability to create larger than life characters. ‘Why
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is it that if you refer to someone being a Fagin so many people will know what you’re talking about?’ asks Bartlett. ‘There are a handful of characters that have escaped from the novel: Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sykes, Mr Bumble, Oliver. They’ve passed into some kind of mythology and that’s extraordinary.’
On the subject of all things Dickensian, Bartlett is thrilled to be touring to the Edinburgh King’s which, like his own theatre, should be a
Let’s Twist again, like we did last century
perfect atmospheric match for the production. ‘One aspect of it is influenced by early Victorian art, the toy theatres, the penny dreadful machines, footlights, trapdoors, this creaky contraption-laden box set and fly ropes,’ he says. ‘Then the other half of it is very punky, because although the costumes all look Victorian, if you look carefully, quite a lot of them are recycled items from junk shops.’ (Mark Fisher)
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