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Giant Olive Theatre Company in association with Simon James Collier presents

Oliver Twist


photo by Andrea Hooymans


Adapted by Piers Beckley

Directed by Ray Shell

Assistant Director Dollie Henry

Designer Andrea Hooymans

Lighting Designer  Ciaran Cunningham

Costume Designer  Neale Pirie

Composer  Paul Jenkins

Produced by George Sallis

Lion and Unicorn Theatre

30 November 2009 – 10 January 2010








A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress, as Dickens second novel was referred to when it was published in 1837, during the era of the infamous 'New' Poor Law, reverberates to this day with social consciousness. By creating characters which serve as metaphors for many members of the general populus not regarded as worthy of consideration by their 'betters', Dickens sought to drive home his points about the unfairness of a system which unashamedly endeavoured to make life as difficult as possible for the already suffering poor. He had the foresight to illustrate the limited options of the desitute and to conversely show that despite their desperation, some rare individuals were still able to maintain a sense of justice and heart. Unfortunately, oft overlooked elements of contemporary life, such as the fact that countless British pensioners, most veterans of WWII, are the poorest paid in Europe, so much so that many must choose between eating or heating every winter, sadly demonstrates that legalised predjudice against vulnerable members of society is still 'in full virgor' in the post-Dickensian London of today. *

Oliver Twist, though fiction, details the impoverished, desperate lives of some of the inhabitants of London’s densely populated underbelly, that sordid den of squalor and, sometimes subsequent iniquity. Most notable among its tenants are those who, thanks to countless cinematic, stage and musical adaptations over the years, are now nearly as famous as Dickens himself: Fagin (Edward Kingham), Artful Dodger (Mark Gillham), Bill Sikes (Sam Nicholl) and Nancy (Amy Merrutia).

Utilising his customarily dark humour, Dickens also shows us examples of those who proudly profess hardship to be tolerable, even preferable, as long as it is the lot of those less worthy than themselves, in the guises of Mr. Bumble (Anthony Kernan) and Mrs. Corney (Beth Thompson) the latter of whom is a window in charge of a typical workhouse. Kernan and Thompson’s scenes are laughably recognizable as they repeatedly strive to outwit one other to their own ends.

Oliver (Gemma Sandzer in her professional debut) seems of little consequence in this adaptation, as he would, in fact have been little regarded in London at the time, due to its teeming orphan population. Under the ‘New’ Poor Law of 1834, no claims for assistance could be made unless one took up residence in a workhouse, as detailed in the programme, where one was often beaten, starved and pressed into hard labour. At the beginning of Dickens novel, Oliver's young mother, having been abandoned by his father, dies giving birth to him in the workhouse.

Giant Olive’s production of Dickens classic assumes a certain knowledge of its protagonist’s plight path in that it meets up with Oliver as he is leaving the workhouse and entering into the working world via fastidiously cryptic funeral director Mr. Sowerby (Terence Mustoo). That particular production choice automatically lessens chances of cliché, as we effectively meet Oliver after his famous plea of ‘Please sir, can I have some more’, which is why once the opening scene has left the brutality of the workhouse, we see him being 'sold' at the tender age of ten to Mr. Sowerby for five pounds. Oliver may have been better off with the undertaker despite his meager food rations there, were it not for the presence of one Noah Claypool (Neil Chinneck in his professional debut), a thoroughly nasty apprentice/self-appointed middle manager with a taste for bullying and slander. Not wishing to bear the brunt of it, Oliver takes the decision to go to London in search of a better life and undertakes the 65 mile walk there (though this portion of Oliver's journey is also edited out). In the bustling capitol starving young Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, aka Artful Dodger (Mark Gillham), his boyish pick-pocket friends and their ruthless mentor, Fagin (Edward Kingham), who has some undesirable acquaintances, among them Bill Sikes (Sam Nicholl) and Nancy (Amy Merrutia), a young woman who once was one of Fagin's pickpockets herself, but has become a poignantly soft-hearted lady of the evening. In London, Oliver also happens upon upper middle-class gentleman, Mr. Browlow (Alex Hunter) who represents, and ultimately promises Oliver another, better way of life, though the way to that higher path is fraught with setbacks and misadventures.

Somehow, rather miraculously, this production's canny director, Ray Shell manages to recreate a sense of the filthy hustle and raucous bustle of Dickens London which lingers in the mind, however momentarily they are enacted. The fact that all of the actors in these ensemble scenes are always, realistically utilized, with each displaying his own characteristics, coincides with well-placed, relevant sound design featuring the clopping of horse's hooves, carts, thronging masses, et al. So under Shell's thoughtful directing, these scenes really set the scene as it were, generating an atmospheric sense of time and place. Scene changes are accomplished swiftly and smoothly by the actors themselves, who seem to have memorized their movements in such cases almost as avidly as the mannerisms and lines of their individual characters.

Further emphasising Shell's creative input, there are many fine performances in this production, putting 'ladies' first, among them, Amy Merrutia's large hearted Nancy, who can no sooner leave her soul-destroying profession than she can her murderous man, Bill Sikes. Merrutia makes it clear that Nancy hopes her love will eventually emotionally rehabilitate Bill and keeps her story in line with Dickens' telling of it. She also touchingly symbolizes the many women who were forced into her unfortunate position in Dickens era. Edward Kingham offers a stunning performance as Fagin, which is notable for many reasons, two of which are that he somehow, manages to make this much played role his own, while avoiding caricature, and, secondly, but just as importantly, his portrayal of Fagin makes it abundantly clear that his character, no matter how varied, or seemingly jolly his moods, is at heart, a psychopath. The latter idea is heightened by the fact that some of Dickens oft deleted/underplayed dialogue telling of another youth who happened into their gang of thieves before Oliver who was simply disposed of, without guilt or shame are not only present in this production, but played accordingly.  Sam Nicholl is also believably menacing as raging Bill Sikes, and his scenes with Merrutia as Nancy and/or Kingham as Fagin are consistently, among the most riveting in this production. 

As Mr. Brownlow, Alex Hunter enables us to realise that despite any privileges he has enjoyed in life, he is nevertheless, generous to a fault. Similarly, Jennifer Lane as Rose, the 'lady' whose house Oliver botches Sikes’ forced burglary in, displays a sense of honour which sits prettily with her refinement. Both characters are in keeping with Dickens penchant to display examples of good and bad characters of lower and upper classes. Rupert Bates, who openly relishes his role as Mr. Browlaw's friend, Mr. Grimwig, lends humour to these demure proceedings with his continual proclamations that he will 'eat his head' should he be proved wrong in any of his many assumptions that Mr. Brownlow's benefactoral gestures towards Oliver are ill placed.

Anthony Kernan and Beth Thompson also take comic honours as Mr. Bumble and his intended Mrs. Corney, who plans to conquer him, and then divide their paring asap. The saucy implications of their pre-nuptial conversations are made all the funner by both actors’ well-thought out body language and facial expressions, which almost function as asides to their audience. Similarly, Terrance Mustoo makes a drily droll Mr. Sowerberry whose true intentions are always, open to interpretation, while Mark Gillham as the Artful Dodger plays the top-hatted, cheery chappie pick-pocket as a fellow you'd be bound to like in spite of his profession, neatly side-stepping parody. That said, it must also be added that Grant Sterry (professional debut) as Charlie Bates, Hannah Refern as Charlotte, Jennifer Oliver as Bet, Kim Driver as Mrs. Maylie, Stuart Mansell as Monks, each of whom play various ensemble roles, along with Tamsin Paskins, Lulu Fish and Sharea Samuels all perform their parts well under director Shell's visionary lead.

Adaptor Piers Beckley has done well to feature specific scene pertinent to Dickens intricate storyline and consider their connections to each other, rather than attempt to adapt the entire novel, as this approach enables cohesion in hindsight for audiences. Designer Andrea Hooymans’ set design seems necessarily bleak, though at second glance, one begins to pick out the shadowy form of what looks like the steeple of St. Bride’s Church on the backdrop behind the actors, and other fragments of London life circa 1837. A few crates, darkened to coincide with this background are just enough to provide tables, chairs and what have you, with the help of drapes, as needed. Similarly, Neale Pirie’s costumes, with their mixed bag of pieces, thoughtfully combined, seem apt. However, despite the fact that at the time of Oliver Twist, Dickens was yet to exert his full literary influence on his idea of ‘childhood’ as an entity of its own, separate from adulthood, and well to do children would have generally been dressed as little adults, the top half of the suit of clothing bestowed on Oliver by Mr. Brownlow could do with some loosening, as their form fitting tucks highlight the fact that ‘he’, is really Gemma Sandzer – a glitch that could easily be rectified. Lighting design by Ciaran Cunningham does justice to Shell’s scenes enabling us to better access the wheels turning in the pseudo Shakespearean head of Edward Kingham’s Fagin. Lastly, but still vital to the production’s powerful imagery is music composed by Paul Jenkins, which lends atmosphere, and also, vital every-life sounds relevant to the 19th century which vividly enliven street scenes.

If you've already seen onstage productions of Oliver Twist and/or other Dickens picaresque tales, you’ll still need to see Giant Olive's production of this one, as it is like no other you will have seen on the fringe, or are likely to again. Unless that is, the company subsequently chooses to undertake their own, bound to be inimitable production of Dickens more mature, most autobiographical, but sadly, rarely, if ever played that way, novel, (his own personal favourite), David Copperfield.



photo by Andrea Hooymans




Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm
Sunday Matinees at 3.30pm

Parental Guidance Recommended

08444 771 000

Lion and Unicorn Theatre
42-44 Gaisford St,
Kentish Town, NW5 2ED


  • Editor’s Note: If seeing Giant Olive’s production of Oliver Twist inspires sympathy for the poor, hopefully, you will feel inspired enough to take a moment to sign the petition in favour of the Warm Homes for All Bill, to be voted upon in Parliament later this year.  If passed, the bill would at least assure that each pensioner (and others in similar need) would have adequate insulation in their homes, many of which are old and draughty, which would help cut their winter fuel bills, thus enabling them to spread their Pensioner’s annual £200 (£300 for over 80’s) Winter Fuel Allowance that little bit further.





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