Oliver Twist is the archetypal social novel, a campaigning piece by Dickens intended to draw attention to the injustice of the 19th Century poor laws and the horrific conditions of the underclass. He invited his readers to identify with and subsequently root for the little boy whose middle-class heritage and by all accounts, lovely manners, separated him from the brutality of the slums he found himself in.
Chino Odimba’s adaptation Twist works to transcend this ‘otherness’, and the perceived inhumanity of the poor by the well-to-do that allows them to pass by street children and ignore the conditions of the work house. Classing other human beings as ‘other’ positions them outside of our boundary of decency and care. As recently as 2012 a lawyer in São Paulo kicked a 13-year-old pickpocket to death for grabbing a woman’s gold necklace. According to reports at the time, crowds surrounding the incident simply watched.
In Odimba’s play, the way that individuals can still slip through the cracks of society when we make such dangerous classifications rings out. In 2019, our lost boy on the hard streets of London becomes Abdo (Jordan Bamford), a Syrian refugee smuggled over from Turkey to join Fabian’s (Bhav Joshi) gang. Theatre Centre’s work is aimed at young people, and here it uses a classic to question how even today a child can still be so victimised and exploited for simply asking for more. In Abdo’s case, the ‘more’ being the very baseline of compassion, basic needs and humanity, denied to him by events far out of his control and understanding.
Twist never reveals Abdo’s age. Bamford plays him with an infantilism that wavers between adorable and realistically irritating: a child utterly dependent on those around him and so far, they haven’t been very kind. Rebecca Hamilton is likeable and street-smart as the prototype tart-with-a-heart Nancy, updated here to a quick thinking and talking Scottish casual thief. I would, however, have liked to have seen much more of Dilek Rose’s ‘Dodger’. Her version transforms the ragamuffin swagger of the Victorian original into the performative confidence of a teenage girl.
The threat of the puppetmasters running the human trafficking and criminal activity is a little toothless. Although Alister Hawke employs a very nasty shark’s smile in his various menacing roles, the actors overall seem to avoid going too dark. This is perhaps to be expected for a piece geared towards a schools’ tour and if a little more intimidation would have been appropriate for the characterization of people smugglers, much better they are underplayed than risk easily imagining them singing ‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’.
Twist is a superior piece of TIE (Theatre in Education) and Odimba has pitched the tone acutely for young audiences, with a show that is accessible but not patronizing. Outside of an educational context, elements of the production could be construed as unpolished. The flashback form of the drama means that we move quickly through key events such as Abdo’s passage to the UK (mainly conveyed through running between various pallets) and characters are left to convey their complexity through fourth wall breaking soliloquies rather than being given the space needed to show us their range. When this production of Twist leans into Odimba’s writing, we get glimpses of the mind-warping absurdity and violence of the refugee crisis that is so difficult to convey in a context where seeing press images of dead children in life jackets has ceased to be shocking.
The term ‘unimaginable’ is applied fast and loose in journalism, but having had an asylum seeker working on a show I designed in Liverpool demonstrate to me (using multiple bean bags) exactly how he smuggled himself to the UK in a lorry tyre, it seems fitting to apply that word to the horror that is happening to refugees every day. In a surreal monologue, a kindly Turkish lady (Dilek Rose) who takes pity on a homeless Abdo describes the wolves that will devour you for lemon cake, leaving only your false teeth. A frightening, fairytale image for a petrified child who has already seen and lost far too much.
Twist is touring until 21 November 2017. Click here for more details.