Review by Rosie Holmes
Child poverty and exploitation is a problem firmly left behind in the Dickensian era, right? In new musical Unexpected Twist, modern day parallels are drawn between the life of characters of Oliver Twist and a group of modern day teenagers, which rather worryingly resonate more than one would hope. Oliver is one of my absolute favourite musicals, so I was very excited to go along and see what the Dickens this new take on Oliver Twist was all about.
Interestingly, this is the second retelling of a Dickens story that I have seen at The Rose Theatre in Kingston in the last 3 months, highlighting Charles Dickens continued relevance in modern day culture. Unexpected Twist is a show adapted from the book of the same name by former children’s laureate Michael Rosen and brought to life by The Children’s Theatre Partnership.
In this show we follow the story of Shona - the new girl at school whose father is struggling to make ends meet after the death of her mother a few years previously. After Shona is offered a new phone at school, she finds herself using this same phone to ‘fetch and carry’ for a local gang, delighted with her new phone and the potential money she is able to earn, Shona continues to be drawn into the gang’s operations. Teacher Miss Cavani tries to help Shona resist falling in with this gang, whilst Shona’s nan also reveals that she is very unwell.
To simply label this show as a retelling of Oliver Twist would be a disservice to the story. Instead, what we see is a group of modern day characters begin to see parallels between themselves and Dickens’ characters. Dickens’ story and words are brought to life by a classroom of unruly children as they study and read the classic novel with their teacher. As the students read the novel, Shona begins to see more and more the parallels between herself and Oliver as well as the situation she is beginning to be dragged into. Whilst a lot of the action is set within the classroom we see most of the characters double up as their Dickensian counterparts as well, with Drew Hylton appearing as both Shona and Oliver.
For the most part this works really well, Alexander Lobo Moreno appears as both Tino and the Artful Dodger, and James Meteyard as Pops and Bill Sykes. Through this framing of the story we are able to really see the parallels between our Dickensian and contemporary characters. The teenagers in the story are drawn into a vicious trap of criminality as they enter gang life in a bid to provide for their families and make ends meet, whilst the society they live in fails them. At other times the parallels can feel a little forced - Teacher Miss Cavani’s comparison to Nancy feels rather functional, whilst she does try and support the children in her classroom, the tenderness of Nancy is missing in her character here. A rather underdeveloped storyline surrounding domestic violence feels a little futile and really needs to be expanded upon to make an impact.
Energetic and catchy songs are littered throughout this piece and showcase the young casts talents. A duet between Shona and her dad played by Thomas Vernal allowed for a tender moment between the pair, which I felt had been missing in most of the dialogue. The more upbeat songs also allow for the cast to show off Arielle Smith’s wonderful and often inventive choreography.
The cast are formed mostly by young performers. Drew Hylton is an absolute star as Shona, with a powerful voice that sounds much mature than her young years, she is sure to be a star to watch out for. Similarly, classroom students Kate Donnachie, Nadine Rose Johnsson and Liyah Summers all perform with unrelenting energy that cannot help but make you smile. Special mention must go to Alex Hardie who takes on the role of Gazz, but also beatboxes his way through the show. At the opening of the piece we are told that every sound made on the stage is coming from someone’s mouth and there is no music or band. For me, this was a really clever touch to this modern hip hop style musical and I could see plenty of children in the audience impressed by Hardie’s skills.
Set design by Frankie Bradshaw on first glance, appears bleak and grey, fitting I suppose for a Dickensian themed show. However, the set design is full of surprises, a multitude of doors allow for Dickensian characters to appear and lurk in the shadows, hinting towards the darkness of the story. Lights also appear, transforming the space in some of the more upbeat numbers into something more reminiscent of a disco.
Whilst the casts vocals were exceptionally strong and the beatboxing excellent, the sound did occasionally let them down – at times feeling piercing and too loud. Light design by Rory was extremely effective, creating shadows for Dickensian characters to appear from and multiple spotlights worked well to elevate the drama of the piece.
Included in the show was a discussion in the classroom between students about the stereotypes of Dickens’ work and the often discussed anti-Semitism shown towards the character of Fagin, in this case played by Polly Lister. The character of Shona challenged whether they should indeed be reading a novel that includes potential anti-Semitism and what ensued was a discussion between classmates about Dickens’ work that I thought was absolutely necessary for a modern day take on this novel.
For the most part, the plot itself works well, and whilst it is important to remember that this is a family show I couldn’t help but feel it was missing little bit of grittiness. Whilst the idea of children being trapped in gang culture was an absolutely excellent parallel to draw upon and illustrate the still ever present plights of those in poverty, it did feel like nothing bad was ever really going to happen.
Ultimately, this was a very successful show and an interesting and refreshing take on a classic. The talented cast performed with an abundance of energy throughout, that really allows this show to hit the mark. Whilst the plot could be tightened up, it still provides a thought-provoking exploration of social issues in an accessible and entertaining way.
Unexpected Twist is currently playing at Rose Theatre, Kingston until Sunday 19th March 2023, it then continues its UK tour until Saturday 10th June 2023. Tickets available here- Unexpected Twist (unexpectedtwistonstage.co.uk)
Photos by Manuel Harlan