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Unexpected Twist - Northampton Review

Oliver Twist gets reinvented for a modern audience as Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist opens at Royal and Derngate ahead of a UK tour.

The cast of Unexpected Twist. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Rosen’s 2018 novel is adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and crashes together the story of young Shona whose journey mirrors that of Oliver in Charles Dickens’s original classic story. 

Shona is a youngster brought up in hard times without her mother and with a Dad who can’t afford for the mortgage so the pair move from bedsit to bedsit. At a new school Shona finds herself mixing with the wrong crowd as she’s driven by the desire for a mobile phone whilst in class the students are studying the Dickens novel.

The story masks brilliantly both the original Oliver story and as the title tells you twists it’s up. You still end up with a fairly aligned story as Shona is guided by her teacher, Miss Cavani (aka Nancy), away from the troubles whilst ruffian Pops (aka Bill Sikes) and Tino (aka Dodger) have her helping in their underworld activities in return for the latest phone model and some much needed cash.

It’s an intelligent re-telling of the story and is perfect for a modern day audience with the themes of poverty ever so relevant as we all face the cost of living crisis. This is also a story about morals as Shona’s journey is driven by those around her and by circumstance and how she overcomes those challenges.

The story is enthused by a rhythmical soundtrack provided by rising R’n’B star Yaya Bey and beatbox supremo Conrad Murray who also serves as musical director. The songs are punchy and full of power with the cast provide all the music through both beatbox sounds and through vocals. The show begins as two the company remind the audience to turn off their phones and to remind everyone that everything you hear is live and performed by the cast. Impressive numbers run at the core of the production and really drive the narrative forwards in the fast paced 2 hours piece.

Alexander Lobo Moreno and the cast of Unexpected Twist. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The music and beats are embossed by the sound design by Leigh Davies though occasionally it’s difficult to understand what’s being said over the loud beats. Visually Frankie Bradshaw’s set roots the show with the backdrop of a school gymnasium with lockers around the walls. It works really well and is helped by excellent lighting by Rory Beaton that adds power and feeling to the piece be that light or dark emotions.

Mixing the costumes between modern day school wear to the Victorian style outfits is cleverly done and Bradshaw’s costumes are impressive. The transition between scenes is cleverly handled with lighting cues that allow seamless transitions between locations and times. 

Leading as Shona rising star Drew Hylton brings fantastic vocals as Shona. Hylton could easily be a mega-hit selling artist, her vocals are clean, precise and always delightful to hear throughout. She also brings great confidence and clarity to the role, here is a young lady who is broken by situation when all she really wants is things to be okay for her and her Dad.

Rosie Hilal is a warm likeable Miss Cavani, she’s the kind of teacher you’d dream for as a kid, she’s staunch and strict when she needs to be but you can also tell that she deeply cares and that is why she puts so much into trying to help Shona. Hilal battles Cavani’s own battles with domestic abuse whilst managing to keep a brave face on the whole time.

Thomas Vernal makes for a great Dad, he’s down on his luck and constantly trying his best to provide for Shona even if that’s just a small bag of chips to share each evening. Polly Lister plays the roles of Nan, Lorraine and Fagin and is equally brilliant as all three, standing out as Nan, the market stall holder who has her own little secrets.

Alex Hardie boasts impeccable beatboxing skill as Gazz/Charlie Bates, as does James Meteyard as Pops/Bill Sykes/Noah Claypole. Meteyard is a rightly horrible gang leader as Pops in the second act. Alexander Lobo Moreno combines strong rap with skilled performance as Tino/Dodger, there’s an edge to Tino that he portrays really well.

There’s some lovely supporting performances and vocals provided by Kate Donnchie as Desree/Dodger, Nadine Rose Johnson as Rosie/Dodger and Liyah Summers as Rasheda/Dodger/Nancy. 

This fantastic new production is Royal and Derngate’s outgoing Artistic Director James Dacre’s last production and it’s a brilliant way to bow out from his tenure at the venue which has seen productions tour, run in West End and beyond. 

The show, for me, was certainly an unexpected thrill. Its clever re-imagining of the well known story will have a modern day audience hooked. A soulful, powerful and lyrical Twisting of a classic.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Unexpected Twist plays at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate until Saturday 25th February. Tickets are available through the Royal and Derngate website. The show tours with dates booking through until June, visit the show’s website for full tour schedule and booking information.

Drew Hylton (centre) as Shona with the cast of Unexpected Twist. Photo by Manuel Harlan

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