Reviewed by Matt Forrest
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
You have to wonder what Charles Dickens would make of modern day Britain, poverty, child exploitation, these were issues the author highlighted some 200 years ago with his undoubted classic Oliver Twist which are sadly still very prominent today.
In 2018 the author Michael Rosen took Dickens’ story and weaved it into his own novel Unexpected Twist! An Oliver Twisted Tale, which has now been adapted for the stage with a freshness and energy that demands your full attention.
This is the story of Shona (Drew Hylton), a young teenager, who along with her father (Thomas Vernal) are constantly on the move to avoid their creditors while attempting to keep their heads above water. In addition, Shona also has the added anxiety of going to a new school, where she is desperate to hide her impoverished background and the death of her mother.
It’s during English lessons with Miss Carvani (Rosie Hilal) that Shona begins to draw on the parallels between her own life and that of Oliver Twist. It’s also in English class where Shona meets Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno), a young man who models himself on the Artful Dodger, and like his idol is a recruiter for a criminal gang of pickpockets, and mules, carrying cash, and stolen goods for its leader, Pops ( Jame Meteyard).
With Shona desperate to shake off the shackles of poverty and with the lure of easy money and a new phone, will she join the gang to help her family and most of all prove she is nothing like the 19th century orphan boy who just wanted more.
Despite an initial slow start, this is a bold, unique take on a familiar classic, told featuring beat-box, rap, ballards, and well-choreographed set pieces all performed by a super talented, young cast, some of whom are recording artists in their own right. We are told at the start of the performance that there is no accompanying band and that everything you hear during the performance will be done by the cast, which is an incredible achievement. I absolutely loved the beatboxing, it sounded fantastic and was enormously effective.
Drew Hyland is brilliant, perfectly encapsulating the struggle between what is right and that desire to escape her perceived destiny of a life of poverty. In addition, Rosie Hilal is in fine form as Miss Carvani, a Nancy-esque character who although full of good intentions towards her pupils, also has her own troubles to deal with.
It’s important that a piece of theatre can shine a spotlight on issues such as child poverty, the cost of living crisis, child exploitation, knife crime and domestic abuse. Whilst this is a sanitised version aimed at a younger audience it sometimes lacks a real edge and sense of menace, however, it by no means diminishes the strong message the show is trying to convey.
Despite its tough subject matter the production is also a great deal of fun. This is a vibrant, engaging production, performed by an exceptionally talented cast full of energy and humour telling a story that is all too real and sadly one that is a reality for so many young people today.
Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist is at the Lowry, Lyric Theatre until the 7th May. Tickets available here.