The full title of this production is “Oliver Twist: created for everyone aged six and over”, but I have to admit that my hopes were not high for the attention span of my daughter Matilda, whose sixth birthday had been the week before.
On entering the open-air auditorium, the set was unattractively unadorned – filthy MDF boards with jagged edges formed the stage, which housed only three ugly, dirty blue containers piled on top of each other.
The opening sequence was not promising: the cast dance jerkily to electro music behind a police line, wearing scary monochrome costumes in an exaggerated version of Gothic Victoriana complete with butchers’ aprons. Zombie-obsessed Daisy, aged nine, was instantly enthralled. But would Matilda, already petrified, really last the running time of more than two hours?
I needn’t have worried. From the minute the dialogue started in the workhouse and tiny Oliver (Lewis Fernee, one of three Olivers in this run) uttered his most famous line, “please sir, can I have some more?”, our attention never wavered.
Daniel Hoffmann-Gill’s booming Mr Bumble bounded around the stage and auditorium ad-libbing and embarrassing members of the audience; he met his match in terms of scene-stealing in Gmebisola Ikumelo, who played a feisty, haughty Mrs Corney with a strong West African accent. A couple of scenes later, she reappeared as Nancy speaking solid-gold Cockney – most of the cast played three characters each.
Between scenes the actors cleverly adjusted their costumes as well as their accents – hyper-tall top hats were cast aside to reveal a Victorian headdress, a drawstring pulled up a skirt to reveal the recognisable tights of Mrs Sowerberry. These visual signifiers were another useful and necessary tool in an fast-moving production that is true to the intricate plotting of the book.
And when the action moved to Fagin’s kitchen, where young Oliver learns to pickpocket as part of a jazz dance, the costumes turned urban – graffiti-sprayed hoodies – and the unforgiving set made sense.
The transformations of the actors from character to character were part of the spectacle and compelling to watch: idiotic Charlotte becomes sinister Miss Monks (Rina Fatania) in cartoonish pinstriped bustles, while Fagin’s flipside is kindly Mr Brownlow (Michael Hodgson).
Shaun Mason played irritating Charley, posh phoney Grimwig and Bullseye, Bill Sikes’ dangerous dog.
Sikes was terrifyingly played by Daniel Hoffmann-Gill (aka Mr Bumble). Robyn Cara’s Agnes/Rose was an affecting and ghostly presence; Liz Crowther’s Mrs Sowerberry, Mrs Maylie were beautifully watchable; and Danny-Boy Hatchard’s chirpy Jack “Dodger” was – until his sorry betrayal of Nancy – a chirpy breath of air.
This was an energetic, creative, clever interpretation of a book that has social injustice at its core – and it seemed fitting to watch it with mangy pigeons flying overhead, under a London sky.
Oliver Twist Created For Everyone Aged Six And Over is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until August 5