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Review: Twistov (Rich Mix, Bethnal Green)

Teatro Vivo's newest production takes audiences out onto the cold streets of east London

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Twistov has gone. Twistov needs to be found. We don't know who Twistov really is.

Teatro Vivo's newest play, set in the heart of Bethnal Green, is a promenade experience burning with unresolved issues. Beginning in the Rich Mix centre, we are led out into chilly east London, through the graffitied streets and shuttered frontages around Brick Lane. The plot thickens, the intrigue deepens. Anyone we walk past could be a character. Any house could be a set location. The possibilities seem almost endless.

Inspired by Dickens' beloved Oliver Twist, the show uses the story of London past to comment about London's present. All of the famous faces are there – Nancy, Dodger, Fagin, each reimagined for the modern day. Whereas Fagin (Malcolm Freeman) was once a leader of a gang of orphan pickpockets, here he's a fixer, finding jobs and board for immigrants. Nancy, or here, Nastia (Vlada Lemeshevska), has travelled from Ukraine to find her brother Twistov, as well as hide from gang leader boyfriend Villem (or, as he's known, Bill). Little tweaks and rejiggings give the show an air of familiarity.

There's ingenuity in the piece, and it's hard to miss the running commentary on perceptions of immigration and xenophobia. This is a show about the forgotten, the ignored, and the lost. We may be told that London is open, but just how far does the policy apply?

For all its novel parts, however, the show never lands with the right degree of urgency or excitement. The main flaw here is the characterisation, with writer Michael Wragg constructing the show from stilted encounters that offer little insight into his protagonists. These are individuals with tenets, our chaperones through the story rather than fully formed figures with their own agency. It also doesn't help that our guide, Nastia, has her head down looking at directions on her phone throughout these excursions, stifling the action.

To exacerbate the problem, encounters and set pieces only occur after four or five minutes of uninterrupted walking across Bethnal Green, with each group shuffling along in silence. The show's momentum fades fast. When all paths converge at the Nomadic Community Garden, a menagerie of multicoloured paintings and ramshackle seats, the plot is outdone by the visual splendour of the art installations and the clamour of the surrounding Overground lines.

It all feels back to front. The show's message comes at the start of the play in a single monologue, which conflates avian flight paths with immigrant movements. "B*****ks to borders", a man dressed as a bird cries. What happens to those not allowed to stand on the ground they're on? The remainder of the 90 minutes merely riffs on a theme, rather than exploring the debate. A hurried movement section, supposedly the climax of the show, also seems unnecessary.

Despite their efforts and an enthralling concept, Teatro Vivo never grasps the full potential of the surroundings. The show revels in the dishevelled glory of its east London backdrop, but never lives up to it.

Twistov runs at Bethnal Green's Rich Mix until 18 November.

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