past and present 

The past haunting the present with Drew Hylton as Shona with Rosie Hilal as Miss Cavani behind with Dickens' spectres of Oliver Twist behind. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

Unexpected Twist

Coventry Belgrade


Oliver has been given a twist. Dickens’ orphan stray, falling into crime through circumstance, has become a girl, a new pupil at a modern comp Ofsted probably avoids, falling into crime through . . . well, some things never change.

Our new Oliver is Shona, played by Drew Hylton. Her mum died two years ago, her dad, played by Thomas Vernal, lost his job and they lost their house, live on his benefits and move from bedsit to bedsit riding a trail of debt and unpaid rent.

Shona has nothing, no friends, no home to speak of, no money and . . . no phone, that modern symbol of existence.

So, when she is offered a phone as a gift, joyously singing I gotta phone, she comes to realise there is a price to pay – as the cast sing, there’s always strings attached. The price is working for the local crime syndicate, run by ex-pupil Leonard, although now he prefers to be Pops, the local gang boss, played with a sinister swagger by Alex Hardie.

He was one of the failures of class teacher Miss Cavani, played by Rosie Halil. She tried to save him, he was a good boy she tells him, but Pops asks what sort of life he faced had he been saved?

It is a question that could be posed around many a comp, not just in inner cities or surrounded by sink estates. Poverty is a poor employer but a good recruiter.

Miss Cavani has the class studying Oliver Twist, a favourite of hers apparently, and a device to run the Victorian novel and current lives in parallel, which works to an extent.

The play is based on Michael Rosen’s novel for young people and has been adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and although there is a modern drama to follow on stage, it is mixed with Dickens’ characters appearing on an elevated section of Frankie Bradshaw’s set, and is full of references to familiar Twist characters.

Shona sees Miss Cavani as Nancy for example while Alexander Lobo Moreno’s Tino is ithe Artful Dodger with his best mate Alex Hardie as Gazz, a sort of Charley Bates character.


Classmates: Alex Hardie as Gazz, Liyah Summers as Rashida, Alexander Lobo Mereno as Tino, Nadine Rose Johnson as Rosie and Kate Donnachie as Desree

Whether Nan, played like a true stallholder by Polly Lister, is Fagin is less clear, perhaps she is too nice for the role, or is that just to granddaughter Shona as she gives Gazz a bit of a scare. She also has a nice line in rhyming slang.

Lister also brushes up well to reappear later as Shona’s businesswoman aunt, her mum’s older sister, at Nan’s funeral, her own mother’s nefarious career having kept her well away.

Bill Sykes is a major figure in the novel but Pops, who shows a violent streak, is hardly in that category so perhaps it is a simpler equation with Miss Miss Cavani’s physically abusive partner, who we only know exists from her phone calls, taking that dubious honour.

I do wonder though whether anyone with no knowledge of Oliver Twist would follow fully what was going on. There is the drama in the classroom, Shona’s ever changing flat and the market with salt of the earth Nan fencing stolen goods, but the Victorian characters breaking out of the past, and how they were represented in this any place comp would be a mystery.

The music from Yaya Bey and BAC Beatbox Academy’s Conrad Murray plays a huge part. I must admit I am not really a fan of rap but its anger, urgency and raw view of life fits in well with the bleak scene and a disillusioned youth.

There are also some fine ballads and soul in there with Hylton’s Shona the star with a wonderful voice which had clear tone and marvellous power when required.

The most fascinating thing is that there is no band, no instruments, just a cast with harmonies, backing vocals and some brilliant beatbox with Hardie’s Gazz a notable exponent.

The set is stark, a three sided room of lockers and cupboards with an upper level surrounded by a reminder of the wall bars in school gyms in schools throughout the land. It is all brought to life by Rory Beaton’s lighting, with wall bars changing LED colour with mood and one impressive, dramatic moment when Tino becomes gang leader by default and is seemingly trapped by a criss cross of spot beams, almost a prison with bars of lights which become searchlights scanning the stage.


Alexander Lobo Mereno's Tino trapped in a cone of light

Perhaps it is telling us Tino’s fate is already sealed, a parting message from a drama which, sadly, tells us Dickens’ novels might be old but still have relevance. We no longer have workhouses for the poor, but we do have a burgeoning market in food banks and growing homelessness.

This is a play aimed at youngsters, who after all are the future of theatre audiences, and my young grandson’s enjoyed it tremendously. For the new generation it opens up a magical world far beyond screens and social media. The cast, ten strong, are excellent, with the seven talented youngsters in their number as much theatre's future as the target audience. A mention too for some wonderful contemporary choreography from Arielle Smith performed with style by the cast.

It is a powerful piece of modern theatre which doesn’t try to bring Oliver Twist up to date, it just shows what Dickens wrote about almost 200 years ago still has echoes today. Expertly directed by James Dacre unexpected will be happening in Coventry to 15-04-23.

Roger Clarke


Unexpected Twist will be at Malvern Theatres 9-13 May and Wolverhampton Grand 16-20 May,

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