Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Fagin's Twist - Review - Northern Stage

Fagin’s Twist  
Northern Stage
30th October, 2018

I have a confession to make. 
When I requested tickets for Fagin’s Twist, I didn’t realise that it was dance theatre. Should have got a clue from it being from Avant Garde Dance company, but I just skipped ahead, excited by the prospect of a new version of Oliver Twist, foregrounding Fagin. So, my experience was coloured by my dance-illiteracy and wrongful expectations.

People will be familiar with Dickens’ Oliver Twist from numerous tv and film adaptations, and from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! So why make a dance version? What can it add? Dance is a good medium to explore patterns and systems, group dynamics, also for exploring relationships, expressed in spatial closeness or distance, and emotion which otherwise might be unexpressed/ inexpressible. 
It’s not, in my opinion, so good for carrying narrative or a character’s internal world. In musicals, which can have a strong dance element, it’s generally the songs which convey the internal life of the characters. Director / Choreographer Tony Adigun made the choice, early on in the process, not to use songs, so he informed us in the after-show talk. Though he does reference in the spoken text the numbers from Bart’s musical, as pointers. I think songs would have helped to illuminate their inner worlds and character development.

In the first half, having started off on the wrong foot, I was often baffled as to what was going on. I guessed, because I knew the ‘twist’, that the characters we were seeing were Fagin and Bill Sykes, at their beginning. But it was just a guess. They are deliberately not named, presumably to leave open the possible identification of them with Oliver himself. The second half begins with Dodger recapping and naming what we’ve seen in the first half. I don’t know if this is intended as a revelation, or an acknowledgement that the narrative is unclear.

The dancing throughout is extraordinarily accomplished, and visually exciting. The staging is ingenious, making full use of the levels and apertures of the wooden set. There’s lots to look at and admire. But for me, it doesn’t quite make up for the lack of characterisation and confusing narrative. We’re told of the poverty and hunger, but I never really felt its effects on the characters. In the workhouse scene, I got that it was very much like a prison, but I didn’t feel it. Possibly the suppleness and energy of the performers undermined any sense of restriction and imprisonment that was meant to be conveyed. It was so delightful watching the dancers weave in and out of windows and doors, leap up and down levels, that it was hard to feel the pressure to escape. Similarly, they radiated such buoyant energy and health that the crushing effects of hunger and misery didn’t really come across. 

Because of the lack of narrative clarity in movement, the production was very dependent on the text to carry the story and the character change. But the monologues delivered by admitted non-actors lacked the necessary vocal range and inflection. An almost impossible task to follow such energetic and variable movement. 

The second half felt more focused. The character of Nancy came across clearly. The ensemble created a fine sense of group cohesion in the pickpocketing sequences. Fagin’s professed protectiveness and family feeling for his bunch of urchins felt believable. The fight scenes made full use of the cast’s expressive movements. And the ‘twist’ when it came, of Oliver’s treachery worked well, culminating in the killing of Nancy. 

Overall, it was an astonishing technical achievement, impeccably choreographed and danced. But I didn’t come away with any new insights of sympathy for the characters who had been reframed, Fagin and Bill Sykes. Lovers of dance will love it. Dickens-lovers may leave scratching their heads.

Gerry Byrne 

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