I’ve been a subscriber to NT At Home for just about a year now and it has been exceptionally good value throughout. There has been a carefully curated set of releases with exciting new material every month and the quality of the filming has usually been superb. What an opportunity to catch up on all the things I’d missed in London and also to have the chance to experience productions from other venues where NT Live have carried out the filming. One such comes in the shape of a production based at Leeds Playhouse where Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist has been adapted and streamlined by Bryony Lavery and managed to squeeze in some actual performances in between lockdowns.
This is a gritty and grimy version which gets closer than many to Dickens’ original intention to expose the underbelly of early Victorian society – very early, publication began in the year the new monarch ascended the throne. With its cast of unforgettable characters it remains to this day one of the author’s most popular yet often misunderstood works. This production is not (definitely not) Lionel Bart’s musical and emphasises the poverty, crime and abuse which the author set out to expose. And Lavery and director Amy Leach have added another layer in keeping with co-production company Ramps on the Moon mission to place “deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre of their work; to accelerate positive change, explore opportunities and stimulate awareness of disability issues within arts and culture”. Here the main character (and indeed actor Brooklyn Melvin who plays him) are hearing impaired and the young boy finds himself rejected by society not only because of his illegitimacy and poverty but also because of his physical disability.
It makes all the more credible the fact that when he runs away to London he falls into the clutches of others who are deaf; that they are also criminals is partly unfortunate but also likely since society has forced them into that way of life. Oliver’s experiences with the likes of Fagin and Bill Sikes threaten to traumatise him but he is eventually rescued by the kindliness of the Brownlow family (also caught up with hearing issues) who (spoiler alert) in true Dickensian manner turn out to be long lost relations. Lavery has cleverly conflated Dickens’ rambling and overly complicated circumstantial narrative here to bring things to a satisfactory conclusion although I didn’t really buy the extraordinarily sudden change of heart of Brownlow Senior.
The cast of 13 (though unaccountably the downloadable show programme only lists 10 and manages to omit the two key characters from the list) multi role and capture the spirit of many of Dickens’s grotesques. There are fine turns by Benjamin Wilson (an odious Mr Bumble), Clare-Louise English (a spirited Nancy), Nadeem Islam (a compelling Dodger) and Stephen Collins (a terrifying Bill Sikes). Following a current trend, Fagin has been gender reassigned in the shape of an avaricious ex music hall performer turned groomer played by Caroline Parker. I’m still in two minds about this as it both worked and didn’t; unsurprisingly any whiff of anti Semitism has been mercifully removed. Dan Willis contributes a couple of well realised comedy characters (Sowerberry the undertaker and Fang the magistrate) and works well with the puppet version of dog Bullseye which becomes thoroughly convincing and introduces another welcome dynamic into the performance.
The non-specific and heavy on scaffolding set from Hayley Grindle is put to excellent use and introduces various levels which help to move things along swiftly – cramming Dickens sprawling narrative into a couple of hours takes some doing. Atmosphere is ramped up by the soundscape of John Biddle and especially in the moody creations of lighting designer Joe Fletcher. Throughout integrated and artistically creative captioning and BSL are used but these are in no way intrusive to those who do not require them; rather they serve to reinforce some of the key messages which the production seeks to put across.
This production is definitely worth seeking out as a reminder of the power of Dickens’ writing and why it often transfers well to stage and screen. It also provides a timely reminder that while some things have changed, not everything has and there is still much room for society to up its game in relation to the disadvantaged. It’s a classic but with a fresh sense of purpose.