Charles Dickens

Oliver!

 

29/11/17

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ah, Oliver! Beloved by schools and youth groups, its jaunty sing-a-long-a-songs and larger-than-life characters mean that we often forget what it’s really about, the squalor and violence of Dickens’ London romanticised beyond recognition: all cute kids and bright handkerchiefs, the focus on the (frankly dubious) rags to riches element of the tale.

EUSOG’S version, directed by Erica Belton, works hard to avoid this trap. Of course, this being a student production, there are no sweet little eight-year-old performers who might need protecting from the grim realities of Victorian poverty, and so we’re free to see the savagery of the poorhouse in an electrifying opening scene, where the desperate inmates swarm through the auditorium towards their meagre meal, a starving horde reduced to zombies, caring solely about sustenance, and fighting for their share. Little wonder that Oliver (Yann Davies) asks for more: even his tiny helping of gruel has been snatched and devoured by others; he’s starving and has nothing to lose. His recklessness makes sense in this context – he’s not new to the workhouse; he knows his request will not be welcome – but this is a moment of rebellion born of deprivation.

I don’t need to outline the story – the musical’s ubiquity means there can be no surprises with the plot – but there are new interpretations of some of the characters. Fagin, for example, is played with wit and empathy by Kathryn Salmond. She shows the softer side of the avaricious old leech, ensuring we see that he is also a victim of a cruelly unfair society.   Reviewing the Situation is an absolute triumph, revealing much about the man.

Ashleigh More’s Artful Dodger is also interesting. More is an arresting performer: cheeky and lively and engaging as can be. Dodger’s heartbreak over Nancy’s death is beautifully bleak.

Grace Dickson (Nancy) also deserves a mention. She strikes just the right balance between strength and vulnerability, making us believe in and understand her doomed relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (Saul Garrett). I’m crying when she sings As Long As He Needs Me: willing her to leave, although of course I know she won’t; wishing she lived in a world where there was somewhere else for her to go.

Not everything about this production is perfect: perhaps more could have been made of the Sowerberrys’ scene, and of the stark contrast  between Oliver’s life so far and the luxury and opulence Mr Brownlow represents. Then there’s the inherent problem of a story where the hero is the least interesting person in it, almost a cypher, on whom we can project our own emotions and through whose eyes we see events unfold; this works well in Dickens’ novel, but is less successful on the stage.

Still, none of this prevents it from being a resounding success; it’s a lively, thought-provoking interpretation, with strong performances throughout. The choreography is very good indeed, and the orchestra plays beautifully (the violins are particularly memorable). This is definitely a show worth seeing, and it’s on until Saturday, so get yourself a ticket and go along. A note of caution though: take an extra sweater. The temperature in the Pleasance is positively Dickensian.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Advertisements

A Tale of Two Cities

08/11/16

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s something reassuringly old-fashioned about this stylish adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic story of friendship and sacrifice. There are no gimmicks, no updates, no references to current political circumstances. Instead, Mike Poulton’s skilful adaptation plays things absolutely straight. That’s not to say that it’s dull. The story is brilliantly and effectively staged, the narrative slipping effortlessly back and forth between London and Paris, without ever prompting us to ask, ‘where are we now?’

In the story’s opening scene, Charles Darney (Jacob Ifan) finds himself in court, accused of treason against the British Crown. Barrister Sidney Carton (Joseph Timms) brilliantly defends Darnay, using the fact that quite by chance, the two men resemble each other. Though Darnay doesn’t much like the dissolute Carton, he acknowledges that he owes the man a great debt and agrees to a kind of friendship, one that is complicated by the fact that Carton has fallen in love with Lucie Manette (Shanaya Rafaat), Darnay’s fiancé.

Meanwhile, over in Paris, the French Revolution is gathering momentum – and the fact that Darnay is a French émigré and the rightful heir to the estate of the hated Maquis St Evérmonde (a wonderfully spiteful Christopher Hunter) means that Darnay soon finds himself back in court  – and this time, he’s a potential candidate for an encounter with the guillotine.

This story has endured for a very good reason – it’s a powerful tale of mankind’s ability to do wonderful things in terrible circumstances – and this is a fine example of how a great novel can also make a great stage play. Director James Dacre handles it all with aplomb and special mention should be made to the Royal and Derngate workshops, who created the scenery, set, props, costumes, wigs and makeup for the show. At times it feels uncannily like we are looking at a series of classic paintings from the period.

Fans of Dickens – and there are many of them – should get themselves along to the King’s Theatre, where A Tale of Two Cities is showing until Saturday 12th November.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney