Oliver! was one of the first musicals that I watched as a child, featuring Charles Dickens’ memorable characters and Lionel Bart’s renowned score. The musical was adapted from the author’s 19th century novel ‘Oliver Twist’ and in 2018 children’s author Michael Rosen also looked to the renowned book for his story ‘Unexpected Twist’. A ‘twisted tale’ that compares modern day poverty and social issues with the historic story, Rosen’s words have now been turned into a musical drama by award-winning playwright Roy Williams. With direction by James Dacre and music by Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray, The Children’s Theatre Partnership and Royal & Derngate, Northampton production is currently touring the UK. This week it is based at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre and I had the opportunity to review the production. Focusing on a group of students that come from a low income area, Unexpected Twist cleverly questions whether Dickens’ story is still relevant in modern day society.
Told through the eyes of secondary school student Shona (Drew Hylton), things are not going well for the principal character. She has recently lost her mother, her father has become unemployed and their subsequent financial troubles have led to the family relocating to a new area. With all of this change, Shona finds herself needing to move schools and at the new school Miss Cavani’s (Rosie Hilal) class are studying Oliver Twist. For just over two hours of live entertainment the audience have a front row seat to the classroom as the students navigate Dickens’ harrowing writing and its parallels to modern day life.
Intertwining Victorian England and the present day
When I first received the invitation to review Unexpected Twist, I was most intrigued by the idea of the show being a modern day retelling of Dickens’ renowned work. As the theatre teased production shots and described the show as when Waterloo Road meets Charles Dickens, I began to quickly realise that we were in for a contemporary and modern piece of theatre.
The majority of the show takes place during the present day, but there are several points where the plot transcends to Victorian England. The characters emerge through doorways and are dressed head to toe in eerie costumes, which are world’s away from the school uniform of the classroom. Frankie Bradshaw’s period designs are spectacular, recreating the creepy and dark atmosphere of the Dickensian era.
Visually the past and present time periods are worlds apart, but when you start looking at the links between the storylines in detail, the timelines are more alike than they first appear. The creative team have done a fantastic job blending the two eras and highlighting the similarities between them.
School setting and coverage of social issues
Michael Rosen’s work doesn’t shy away from the issues young people face today. Despite the fictional ‘twisted tale’ content, in the theatrical production everything feels incredibly real. When you also look at the show through the perspective of the current cost of living crisis, the drama’s poverty theme has even more weight. It is important that these very tangible issues are documented on stage so that audiences can reflect and act on them.
My only criticism would be the over exaggeration of the school scenes and the excessive use of slang language. It comes across more as a media interpretation of a school than a realistic picture of an educational facility. For everything the creative team has done to make the show relatable, in my opinion the school scenes have been overly dramatised.
Beatboxing, R&B and Grime
Unexpected Twist features contemporary musical genres and this is a fantastic creative decision for a youth-focused production. Very few shows utilise such modern music styles, which makes the piece stand out when it comes to attracting younger audiences into the theatre. At the start of the show the audience learns that there is no backing music or band and all of the noises on stage are created by the cast. Although the genres are not usually to my personal taste, it goes without saying that the Unexpected Twist company are multi-talented and contribute impressive vocals, rhythm and rhyme to the production. In the finale, the audience is treated to a freestyle-inspired performance. Regardless of your musical preference, spectators will enjoy this relaxed a cappella segment.
An exciting contemporary production!
Unexpected Twist* is an imaginative production with a visionary and modern score. It breathes new life into Dickens’ story and characters, bringing the material into the 21st century. I look forward to hearing more about this creative show as it continues around the country this year. The beatbox musical is playing at The Marlowe Theatre until Saturday and last minute tickets can be purchased from the theatre’s website.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*Our tickets for Unexpected Twist were gifted in exchange for a review of the production.