With a trip-hop soundtrack and breakdancing, this is an unusual Oliver Twist. Taking us from Fagin’s earliest days, he and Bill Sykes are given a shared history in a workhouse, which is followed by their escape together and the creation of a family of thieves. Fagin’s Twist rejects everything about the picaresque texture of Dickens’ novel, which sees its golden boy Oliver shunted between terrifying criminal and impoverished situations, completely devoid of agency. Fagin and Bill also find themselves in the darkest places but have agency from the first day they meet, and indeed so does this version of Oliver – a wicked ambition, which sees him trump Fagin on his own terms, without reference to the well-to-do plot which occupies the resolution in the original.
Yann Seabra’s set, comprised of moveable wooden jetties and cages are rearranged to become workhouse bunks, abandoned houses, docks and higgledy-piggledy rooftops. More abstractly when lined up at the beginning and end of the piece they form a line graph, pointing resolutely upwards to stage right. We meet Fagin on this line, and he’s handed his top hat for the first time –the top of the pile, looked up to by all of the rest of the cast, playing as they are a collection of urchins and miscreants.
The ascendance of Oliver – for it is Oliver who ends up in this position at the end of the piece, is an odd one. Oliver is not given a backstory in this version, and simply appears at the end of the first half – an observant child, a quick learner, a charmer. His rise to power at the expense of Fagin, Bill and Nancy (who is sadly given even less to do in Fagin’s Twist than in the original novel) makes no sense without a driving desire behind it, which we are not given. However, the action is one thatfeels right – given that this version flips (twists?) everything we know from the original, it makes sense that an heir to a better life (as he is, in the novel) would not escape Fagin’s gang, but rather take it over, controlling the means of criminal production – a gentrifying, colonizing move.
Contrasting sharply with the wooden boards of the set, and the waistcoats, top hats and coloured handkerchiefs that the dancers wear, is Tony Adigun’s hip-hop inspired choreography that propels this piece, tight, emotive and occasionally gasp-inducing – accompanied by epic, angular beats and strings that are a fantastic fit for a grimy London, whether 19th or 21stcentury:
Particularly impressive is the muscularity of Bill Sykes (Dani Harris-Walters) who seems to expanded to twice his size once released from the workhouse, and a dance with dialogue and a table between Oliver (Jemima Brown) and Nancy (Lisa Hood). But the most incredible feat of physicality is Joshua James Smith’s gradual appropriation of those Fagin-like tics and fey gestures into his dance – never falling into Ron Moody impersonation, but recognisably drawing the Fagin of screen and stage into his choreography, forcing the audience to reconcile the familiar grotesque creation with this criminal and unlovable character who is nevertheless more human – placed in a recognisable economic context.