A one-man hour-long dash through Dickens’ most infamous murder, Sikes & Nancy takes the tale of Oliver Twist and turns it into a dramatic gothic extravaganza, a testament to the incredible talents of James Swanton. Swanton plays every character in the play – including the narrator, as the majority of the text is taken verbatim from the novel. He flits between the growl of Bill Sykes, the wavering sorrow of Nancy and the wheedling of Fagin effortlessly, his face and voice elastic and full of vitality.
Swanton is already seated when the audience enters; face contorted in torment, sat in the middle of six chairs, the only scenery that ever appears on stage. The sound of rain dripping is heard in the background, the only thing to break the silence until the lights dim, the audience already captivated as we watch him wring his hands mutely.
Swanton’s acting is not necessarily naturalistic, but nor is meant to be. His Fagin is over-the-top, the narrator almost as dramatic, but Oliver Twist is such an improbable novel to start with it does not really matter, his caricatured versions of the characters chiming with the exaggerated tone of much of the book. His eyes are surrounded by black makeup, like a classic mime artist, and indeed, the lack of scenery means that mime is used frequently throughout the play. The open space means that Swanton can spend his time dashing across the stage, moving chairs to conjure up docks and pubs, filling up the space with sheer physical energy. He is almost constantly moving, the level of vigour consistent throughout, an impressive feat for a production that depends solely on him.
The theatricality at work in Sikes & Nancy is wonderful: black clothes mean that characters can be shrugged on and off easily without the bother of costumes, anything projected onto his simple attire, and when the splash of blood comes, it is all the more striking for being the only colour on stage. The smoke pumped on stage increases at the climactic point, amping up the sense of the gothic, calling to mind the iconic fog that is so strongly associated with Dickensian London.
However, in a play where there is so much speech, the moments of silence are the ones that bring the most tension. This is especially the case in the lead up to Nancy’s murder, where Swanton verges on the too-hysterical. The vivid nature of Dickens’ descriptions of her body do not really need embellishment, and would be more effectively portrayed if Swanton stepped back for a moment and allowed the full horror of what has happened to sink in. The audience are not given an awful lot of time to process, and there is the risk of being so caught up in Sykes’ panicked shrieking that we become desensitised to the brutality of Nancy’s fate.
Despite this, the grisly deaths of the play are well done. After Nancy’s death Bill is almost constantly rubbing the blood over his hands, until both forearms are covered in it. Although he textually has washed the blood off himself, its continued presence creates a Macbeth-like sense of being stained and haunted by the guilt of what he is done, and by the end of the play he is a truly gruesome sight.
Although at times the intensity of his performance feels like too much, Swanton in Sikes & Nancy is a tour de force. There are moments where it is hard to believe there is only one man on stage – he is possessed by these characters, and through him the dingy dens and the criminals that inhabit them are brought to life. It is a testament to his acting that watching him bow at the end is somehow jarring, the man who has been impossible to pin down finally shaking of the world he has inhabited and returning, for now, to ours.