By Zephy Losey
If, on hearing that Oliver Twist was being put on in the Town Market, you thought ‘I’ve seen that story so many times, I don’t need to see it again’ and didn’t book tickets, you made a terrible mistake. Director Olivia Race did a wonderful job of reimagining the Dickens’ classic – one which charmed and captivated its audience as it immersed us in the streets of London.
The first thing of note was, of course, the venue. Doing any show in promenade is always a risk – this one most definitely paid off. The space was imaginatively used to enhance the atmosphere of the play, using the real fruit stall in the scene when Oliver gets caught in the market, to pull the audience into the action. The winding twists and turns of the market gave the impression of a much vaster space, and as we were guided through them if felt as though we really were being led through Oliver’s London. However, due to the size of the venue, it was sometimes difficult to hear what was being said, and while this may have been unavoidable, some of the actors would do well to remember that just because the audience is close to you, it doesn’t mean you can afford to drop projection. While the nature of the style of the performance meant that set and props were sparse, this added to the play instead of taking away from it. The impression of a bar, market and home were given simplistically, yet effectively, and my favourite set by far was Fagin’s home, where you went up the stairs and were able to sit in his little lair to watch the action.
This minimalism could have caused the play to feel empty and bland, but this was never the case, as the brilliant band filled anything that might have felt blank with lovely music that always fit the action perfectly – well done to the composer Rob Collins for this remarkable achievement! The costumes and makeup were also seamlessly done, with particular mention going to the Artful Dodger’s outfit for perfectly exemplifying his character. No theatre could have afforded them the same ambiance of chilling emptiness or, at the very start when the audience actually walked past Oliver sleeping in archway without really noticing, dark dirtiness. The choice to use the Indoor Market was, in short, the best thing about this play, giving it a uniqueness that I’m sure I won’t see topped in my time at Durham.
If the setting was the best thing about the show, that is not to say the acting was lacking – quite the opposite was true. Jenny Walser did a phenomenal job in believably portraying a ten-year-old boy, especially one whom the audience had such empathy for. She excellently depicted the change in Oliver, offering us a dynamic performance from scared boy asking for “more” to frightened runaway and reluctant thief, before finally becoming contended. She was also given the difficult job of framing the play’s narrative in monologues that set the tone of the production. This too was executed perfectly, and the audience somehow left feeling hopeful and light-hearted despite having heard Nancy’s vicious death only moments before. On that note, Sarah Slimani as Nancy did a superb job in bringing feminine tenderness to an otherwise harsh script. The audience felt her compassion for Oliver yet somehow also understood why she couldn’t bring herself to leave Bill. Her death was far and away the most poignant moment in the play and credit should go to her and Tristan Robinson – playing Bill Sikes – for putting on such an impressive, believable display of violence so close to their audience. Robinson and Michael Yates (Fagin) also made for an excellent pairing, playing off each other’s brutality and malice, as well as doing a great job of making it seem like there was a prior history between them – something which often seems to lack in student theatre. Elle Morgan-Williams as the Artful Dodger should also be commended on her larger than life personality and the easy repartee she created with the audience as she led us around. All the actors were good at audience interaction, but Morgan-Williams was particularly notable for seamlessly incorporating telling the audience to move within the scene. Finally, though having the smallest role, Clementine Medforth as Rose also did her part flawlessly, welcoming the audience and showing genuine concern for Nancy. Mention should also be made here of the fact that all the actors managed to maintain their accents throughout the show, which meant their believability never wavered.
In short, it was an utterly endearing production that was practically perfect! Huge congratulations must go to Race, her cast and crew for making a classic their own – if you haven’t bought a ticket yet, you should!
‘Oliver Twist’ will run until Sat 30th April at Durham Indoor Market. Limited tickets are available, email firstname.lastname@example.org to book.
Photograph: Genevieve Burns