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Exceptional beats with a modern twist that shows child exploitation is not just history

Review of Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist, Royal and Derngate, Northampton

As latecomers were still taking their seats, two young male actors appear in front of the curtain to beatbox a message – this show has no instruments other than voice. And boy, do they use that voice well. Musical director Conrad Murray and song writer Yaya Bey’s work with a cast of incredible multitalented actors is the absolute heart of this show.

This is more than just an adaptation of Oliver Twist, interlinked by Michael Rosen into a contemporary setting, it’s a show, a spectacle, a musical remix of a story of exploited and abandoned children by today’s society, set to a banging original soundtrack.

Drew Hylton, Rosie Hilal, James Meteyard, Liyah Summers, Polly Lister. All photos by Manuel Harlan

Just as in Dickens’ original story of child exploitation, Roy Williams’ clever stage adaptation takes it a little further – bringing alive the truth of poverty and politics – and the message of the power of books to make sense of our society.

Reminiscent of previous R&D show Education, Education, Education, it opens in a contemporary classroom, with teacher Miss Cavani trying to get her unruly charges to engage with readings from Oliver Twist. With the exception of the keen-to-learn Rasheda (Liyah Summers), the class are disruptive and disengaged.

The staging is on two levels – a clever construction of stepped lockers and climbing bars allowing the Victorian and contemporary stories to overlap without set changes. The lighting is used effectively as an extra layer of staging – although in Row F of the stalls the light bursts into the audience are just too much – several times we had to cover our eyes to avoid another migraine-inducing blast.  

New girl Shona, (a brilliant performance by Drew Hylton), is grieving the death of her mother and frustrated by constantly moving house due to her dad’s inability to function, without recognising his own grief. Their relationship, like too many young people in poverty, has switched the parent/child responsibilities.  

The characters are all stuck in their own survival loops – Tino/Dodger (Alexander Lobo Moreno) is trapped in co-dependency and fear by Pops/Sykes while the teacher is fighting to ‘save’ pupils past and present from their fate while enduring her own unseen trauma. The child gang here is trapped by county lines and money laundering, and the bribery/blackmail of people in poverty thinking they can change their lot by agreeing to a ‘one-off’ favour that binds them to criminality.

Drew Hylton as Shona and Tomas Vernal as Dad

And the phones, the ubiquitous phones. The addiction and control that they exert is as glittery as a gold necklace to Fagin’s gang. They promise freedom but hold us back. Their presence runs through the show, brilliantly choreographed, like a poisonous fruit.

The music lifts the show in every way. Beats can scream anger and provoke laughter one minute and deep melancholy the next. Kate Donnachie stands out as disruptive Desree and her beatboxing and movement leads the entire cast, cleverly choreographed by Arielle Smith.

Alexander Lobo-Moreno as Tino/Dodger

There are some parts that grated – like the very odd attempt at cockney rhyming slang that is overused and just doesn’t land. There are some very simplistic resolutions, and by the end this was killing some of the justified rage at inequality and class bias I expect Rosen and Dickens intended. But remember this is a show for children (secondary age I’d advise) and as we went on press night, it felt odd to watch in an audience of, let’s just say it, privilege. Theatre can have a huge influence and I think, had I seen it on a matinee full of year 8s, it might have felt less awkward.

I urge any parents of teen to go and see it – the musical talent alone is worth the ticket price.

Unexpected Twist is a Royal & Derngate and Children’s Theatre Partnership production, and runs at Royal & Derngate until February 25, box office 01604 624811, before a national tour.

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