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Let's Twist Again - a modern musical story inspired by Oliver

Unexpected Twist at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 15 April.

Review by Alison Manning.

Unexpected Twist is a musical play based on the eponymous book by Michael Rosen which in turn is inspired by the novel Oliver Twist. It follows Shona’s story from her first day at her new school, where her class are in the midst of studying the Charles Dickens’ classic. Slowly parallels emerge with Dickens’ story as the pupils read it aloud in class and see in it echoes of their own lives.

Shona and her dad’s financial struggles, the reason behind her frequent relocation, mirror Oliver’s poverty and they both have dubious struggles to try and escape from it. Shona is both struggling to escape from hardship and also to differentiate herself from Oliver’s plight and establish her own identity, but the temptation of a supposedly free phone is a great pull.

This is a show that exudes energy and is pervaded by music. There are no instruments involved, however, all the music, beats, harmonies and sound effects are made exclusively by the actors’ voices. This really underpins the whole performance, swelling the action to crescendos in dramatic turning points, emphasising the emotion at others. The whole cast excels in their vocal gymnastics, beatboxing and singing but Drew Hylton, who plays Shona, despite being only 17 and in her first main role, has a fantastic evocative voice that particularly stands out as a highlight.

The set is simple but multipurpose, combining school lockers, reinforcing the feel of a modern classroom, with a token Dickensian lamppost. The lockers double as steps, with further ladders leading to an upper level, with outer scaffolding bars, mimicking a school gymnasium with industrial overtones, reinforcing the metal theme and providing further climbing opportunities for the characters, adding extra dynamics and dimensions to the fast-paced scenes.

The upper level also provides a platform for characters to appear in Dickensian costume, reflecting the classroom readings of Oliver Twist, enabling the Victorian characters to literally peer over the pupils and with clever musical, smoke and lighting effects, to blur the lines between Dickens characters and their modern parallels. Thus Shona, reading out the part of Oliver in class, gets angry and exacerbated when another pupil, reading the part of another character, casts aspersions on Oliver’s dead mother and she thinks, immersed in the story, that her own late mum is being mocked. In other scenes the lockers pull out to cleverly create a marketplace, where Shona’s Nan works and some of Shona’s new school friends are hanging out and all is not quite what it seems to Shona’s innocent, inexperienced eyes.

Another interesting parallel is the gentle but firm teacher, Miss Cavani, played by Rosie Hilal, whose life mirrors Nancy’s. She has good intentions to look after the children in her care and save them from taking the wrong paths, with limited results, but has her own problems she needs to face relating to her boyfriend Liam, who we don’t see on stage but she receives phone calls from in class, who is in turn a counterpart to Bill Sikes.

At times I struggled to understand some of the words, particularly when characters were all talking at once, or perhaps not enunciating entirely clearly, but this could be part of their characterisation and the captioned board provided by the Belgrade provided all the answers. It also helped determine some of the slang terms being used that I was unfamiliar with, perhaps because I am neither young enough nor cockney enough. I still wasn’t quite sure what they all meant though.

Without giving spoilers, the plot, suffused with music throughout, from a slower start, speeds up and follows twists and turns to its own conclusion, both echoing Dickens’ novel, but also with the modern day characters establishing their own paths and identities, with Shona concluding that she needs to make her own ending.

Unexpected Twist has a suggested minimum age of 8, but I would recommend it for both older children and adults, those familiar with Dickens and those not. Although it helps to know the original story it is not necessary as enough explanation of it is given within the play. It is on at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, on Friday 14 April at 7pm and Saturday 15 April at 2.30pm and 7pm.


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