Energetic, brutal and beautiful, Avant Garde Dance’s Oliver Twist is not nearly as well-mannered as the Oliver we’re familiar with. This Oliver doesn’t ask for more, he demands it.
Circomedia’s unique stage is the perfect place for an urban retelling of Dickens’ tale of poverty, crime and homelessness. Fagin’s Twist lends an unexpectedly dark edge to a story that is as applicable to society now as it was in the 1830s. Those of us who know Mark Leister as the doe-eyed Oliver Twist from the 1968 musical are in for a delightful shock as Jemima Browne’s hip-hop dancing, aggressive portrayal is far less innocent.
Ever-shifting set pieces of metal and wood are used cleverly throughout the production to depict the workhouse, the dangerous London streets and Fagin’s home, lit cleverly to create dark shadows that twist around the dancers, engendering an atmosphere of deviousness, madness and despair.
The small cast street dance gracefully and powerfully through the story in a way that portrays much more rage and fury that the musical ever did. The play opens with a young, depressed Fagin (Joshua James Smith) and a listless Bill Sykes (Dani Harris-Walters) in the workhouse – Bill seemingly resigned to his fate, Fagin plotting their escape.
Throughout the production, we follow Fagin as he manages to break out and find himself and Bill a rotten squat to inhabit, where he recruits and assembles his gang of pickpockets, including young Oliver. Rather than being portrayed as the monsters here, both Fagin and Bill are unfortunate souls blighted by madness and addiction, living in overwhelming and inescapable poverty.
Nancy (Ellis Saul) is once again a sad and easily manipulated character, though this time, not only by Bill. We watch Fagin battle with melancholy and paranoia as he tries his best to build some kind of life, and to symbolically prove himself by one day legitimately buying his own pocket watch (just one prop of many so familiar from the musical, and reimagined wonderfully in this production).
As the characters writhe, stomp and fight their way through the story with mesmerising and often brutal movement, we get to know the real Oliver Twist as he begins to manipulate Nancy, Bill and Fagin to his own ends. There is little narrative, and certainly no song in the story, which initially feels rather odd (to be expected in such a stark and different retelling of a story so familiar and ingrained in our minds).
However, by the start of the second half, you are completely immersed in the action. The dance is so expressive and in places violent that the narrative is not missed, and Fagin and the narrator’s monologue is used sparingly and to great effect.
Avant Garde Dance have recently formed a partnership with the talented Ciromedia team, and judging from this performance, it’s a perfect match. Having seen performances by both, there’s an immersive mix of beauty and brutality to the unique ways they tell their stories that just fits. I’m sure the combination of both will be a dark delight and I look forward to seeing what they have in store for the future.
Fagin’s Twist Circomedia, Friday, October 6. For upcoming performances at Circomedia, visit www.circomedia.com/pages/events/category/shows
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