Review: Oliver Twist (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre)

Caroline Byrne directs Anya Reiss’ new adaptation of Dickens’ classic for everyone aged six and over

Poverty, crime and grime are at the heart of Oliver Twist, one of Charles Dickens’ most popular novels. Anya Reiss‘ impressive adaptation fillets the story very effectively, condensing swathes of plot into neat scenes that propel Oliver’s adventures forward.

But galloping through the story at this pace means that – despite the heroic efforts of characters like Monks (Rina Fatania) to explain Oliver’s backstory – there are bound to be times where children in the audience lose the plot. Does it matter? Not in this production, where the whole sense of who’s a goodie and who’s a baddie is made crystal clear by the multi-tasking cast.

The programme notes help children differentiate characters by describing their costumes, and designer Fly Davis devises a curious mix of steampunk Victoriana and modern graffiti-sprayed leathers for Fagin’s boys. In a nice touch, the Dodger (Danny-Boy Hatchard) wears wheelies, all the better to escape with. The set is an ingenious construction of shipping containers, and makes imaginative use of the revolving stage in the numerous chases and escapes.

There’s also impressive work from sound designer Josh Anio Grigg, whose sinister industrial soundscape helps to conjure the misery of a nineteenth century workhouse.

Queen of the production is Gbemisola Ikumelo, who plays self-serving workhouse matron Mrs Corney, as well as the spirited Nancy, a warm-hearted London girl through and through. Daniel Hoffmann-Gill provides a physical and emotional centre of gravity as stone-hearted Mr Bumble, and the horribly sinister Bill Sykes. Because of his very striking appearance – and magnificent beard – it might have helped to make his costume change a bit more obvious between characters.

Michael Hodgson creates a manipulative, sly Fagin with a heart of darkness that’s revealed most fully in the quietest moments, such as his warning to Bill about dealing with Nancy.

The title role is a very physical one for any child, as Oliver is kidnapped, posted through a window, locked in a coffin and so on. Here it’s alternated between three young actors, including Lewis Fernée, who gives a touching and engaging performance.

In the later part of his life, Dickens went on tour to perform live readings from his books. One of his most popular and effective was the account of Nancy’s murder at the hands of Bill Sykes – which exhausted him so much his doctors told him he had to stop including it in the show.

In this production, for children aged six and up, there is certainly an ominous sense of something bad happening, but this cruellest of scenes is managed with real sensitivity by director Caroline Byrne, who has produced an action-packed, thrilling show with just the right amount of audience interaction to engage and entertain.

Oliver Twist runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 5 August.