Unexpected Twist

Reviewer's rating

The touring company of Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist has reached Oxford and lives up to its very fine reputation. Adapted from the book by Michael Rosen, this bifocal reconsideration of Dickens’ Oliver Twist remains true to Rosen’s social vision of the return of our country to near-Dickensian conditions for the underprivileged. It also creates a virtual reality of its own through the drama and a musical approach that seems to me positively influenced by rap musicals like Hamilton.

The creative rap score and lyrics by Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray are catchy, evocative, constantly attention-grabbing and not only apt to each situation and character but very strong. There is a terrific mixture of a strong beat and syncopation. The adaptationof the story by Roy Williams is gripping and very clear at all times. The staging by James Dacre is inestimable. It is funky and compelling, very imaginative and understanding of how to use the stage. It includes a strong and visually striking set and costumes by Frankie Bradshaw.

I found the whole evening exemplary and an example of a strong sense by everyone involved of the uses of live theatre. I was very impressed and moved and so was an audience that had a large proportion of young people in it, the real target of both the book and this theatrical version. The mini-concert at the end with audience participation and a continuation of the creative energy and commitment of the play itself was just one more highlight of a splendid evening.

The cast work brilliantly together as an ensemble and their energy and timing are impeccable. Every single person on that stage is a performer born and has a fine voice and much talent both as an actor and a dancer as well. Rosie Hilal embodied the teacher, Miss Cavani, strongly indicating her own personal problems as the Nancy figure. Drew Hylton was a pivot for the show as Shona/Oliver. James Meteyard, Alexandrer Lobo Moreno, Liyah Summers, Thomas Vernal all had memorable moments and movements. Polly Lister, Alex Hardie, James Meteyard and Kate Donnachie excelled in more than one role. On top of playing all these roles and singing and dancing the members of the cast are also the pit band – everything is a cappella and all the sounds, including some pretty amazing imitations of actual instruments, is made by the performers on that stage with the aids of a synthesizer or a microphone.

Unexpected Twist is beautifully paced dramatically and musically, syncopated and rhythmic almost throughout, often moving at great speed while understanding the need to slow down from time to time so that highlight moments of song or dialogue can stand out. The use of dialogue turns this into a kind of hip-hop Singspiel.

The centre of the plot revolves around a contemporary classroom in a state school where the kids are reading the Dickens novel Oliver Twist. The aim is to make those in the story and us in the audience perceive the parallels in the lives of the characters in the play to the struggles, poverty, deprivations and motivations of Oliver, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Bill Sykes and Nancy. These are young and adults in danger of being caught up in a world swirling around their lives of gangs and knives and drugs.. The parallels drawn are clever and telling but never forced. Rosen and Williams are not saying that we are a complete repeat of the world of d\Dickens, more that our world echoes or rhyme with that past increasingly. If you get a chance to see this show, I recommend it highly. And also recommend that you stay for the cheering mini-show that comes with the totally deserved ovation at the end.