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Unexpected Twist

by on 16 March 2023

The Past Comes Seeping

Unexpected Twist

by Roy Williams, adapted from story by Michael Rosen

The Children’s Theatre Partnership and Royal & Derngate at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19th March, then on tour until 10th June

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Roy Williams’ adaptation of Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist is not so much a modern revamp of Dickens’ 1838 novel, as a fusion of 19th and early 21st century characters in a story spanning generations and in which, aside from a few social mores, not a great deal has actually changed.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, in fact.

Shona and her widowed father are struggling to survive, mainly on chips, in 21st century London without attracting too much attention from Social Services.  At school, Shona is reading Oliver Twist and noticing unnerving parallels with her own life.  Help arrives out of the blue in the form of a Smartphone, given to her by a boy in school but for which, it turns out, there is quite a price to pay.  Gang culture beckons.  A violent and controlling young man, Pops, runs a collection of children, using them to deal drugs and steal money (including picking pockets).  Shona’s world-weary Nan launders the cash through her market stall. 

Shona (an assured performance from Drew Hylton) struggles to understand what’s happening to her and as she does so, seeping out of the walls at various points, with accompanying Dickensian fog, come Bill Sykes, Fagin, Sowerberry the undertaker and others.  They seem to be there to warn her of how this ends but can she see what they’re showing her?

There is so much good stuff in this production it’s difficult to cover all of it.  Theatrically it’s completely engaging, very entertaining and full of energy.  The set, with its clever mix of tall, thin lockers, gym climbing walls and ladders, obliges characters from both centuries to climb up and down it, bringing to mind the old adage that it is, indeed, ‘a jungle out there’.  The lighting creates both the dim, grimy London that Dickens knew, and the relentless, bright light of an inner city school but there is no distinct separation between the centuries; they bleed into each other.

The fluid moving backwards and forwards in time feels like a feature of this work.  Shona’s Nan occasionally uses cockney rhyming slang, which may or may not be dying out but harks back to its heyday some time ago.  The pupils at Shona’s school speak in their generation’s own particular 2023 street vernacular.  Each group or generation has its own identifying features, sometimes the groups struggle to communicate with each other but they manage to understand.  There is a market scene near the beginning of this work which is as far removed from the Who Will Buy? set piece in the 1968 musical Oliver! as it’s possible to get but there were dance moves in it that echoed Onna White’s choreography for that film.  Whether this is deliberate or I’m just quite old these days is difficult to tell but all of these details connect with a varied audience.

There is a great cast on show here.  Everyone sings, (original music by Yaya Bey) there are some great voices and there are two particularly gentle duets between Shona and her father which touch a collective nerve on bereavement and memory and which were beautifully performed by Drew Hylton and Thomas Vernal.  Conrad Murray’s beatbox soundtrack adds a perfect tone to the drama.

The intensity with which Kate Donnachie, Nadine Rose Johnson and Liyah Summers endow Shona’s classmates, (respectively Desree, Rosie and Rasheeda) is impressive.  It adds a volatility to the classroom scenes and an edge to the action.  Their chorus trio also is consistently good.  Alexander Lobo Moreno as Tino and Alex Hardie as Gazz are equally engaging as characters developing from the classroom into the roles they were going to play in their later lives.  James Meteyard as Pops is both an intimidating presence and a product of the damaged child he temporarily and uncomfortably remembered when faced with his former teacher.

Polly Lister, as the Nan with whom no one messes, and Thomas Vernal as Dad both provide unsentimental portrayals of characters, battered by life but unwilling to give up on it and Rosie Hilal is a sympathetic and straightforward teacher Ms Cavani, a woman ignoring her own issues.

Leaving the theatre after the performance, in the dark and the rain, the gig economy was flourishing as various soaking wet delivery drivers struggled onto pushbikes to make their evening deliveries or huddled in doorways.  Plus ça change, etc.

Unexpected Twist is both great entertainment and that elusive thing, education without pomposity.  Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis, March 2023

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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