Produced by Ramps on the Moon, this new version of Oliver Twist (directed by Leeds Playhouse Associate Director Amy Leach) brings an entirely new and extraordinary perspective to this timeless Dickensian tale. The production, like all of Ramps of the Moon productions, feature deaf and disabled performers alongside non-disabled artists. The central ethos behind Ramps on the Moon is making theatre as accessible as possible. This production features sign language, audio description and captioning which are not simply additional features, but rather are fully incorporated and woven into the artistry of the production.
In this version, the eponymous Oliver Twist (played by Brooklyn Melvin who articulates so much of Oliver’s anguish and pain in the subtlest of ways) is poor, orphaned and deaf, navigating a world that is exceptionally cruel. A screen at the back of the stage doesn’t just caption the dialogue, but has a certain cinematic quality and interacts with the eerie and sinister atmosphere on stage. Whilst the production values are rich and astonishing, the power of this production lies in Bryony Lavery’s deft and skilful adaptation, and the striking and boundary pushing direction from Amy Leach. Lavery does a remarkable job of condensing a rich and dense novel, and yet ensuring the timeless essence of the story is still intact.
The cast are entirely exceptional in their efforts to bring this story to life. Melvin’s gestures and mannerisms convey so much as Oliver embarks upon an extraordinary journey, from the cruelty of the workhouse where he is abused and bullied, to the dangerous streets of London. Infamous characters like Fagin (Caroline Parker) and Bill Sikes (Stephen Collins) are brilliantly menacing and terrifying, but in a way that avoids the caricatures often found in adaptations of Oliver Twist. The strength of this show lies in the fact that it is truly an ensemble piece – the chemistry and connection between all of the actors is palpable.
Another standout quality of this adaptation is how it sharply uses the setting of Victorian Britain to draw light on deaf culture and deaf history. Whilst disparaging sign language, Brownlow (Jack Lord) makes reference to the Milan Conference, a congress on the education of the deaf where he voted against using sign language and supported oralism. All of these intricate details demonstrates the barriers that those who are deaf have historically received across Europe and the lack of agency they’ve had in terms of influencing social policy (the programme notes make clear that the conference featured no representatives of the deaf community).
Hayley Grindle’s multifunctional, steel bar set piece is a brilliant canvas for the action which spans the dingy crevices of the workhouse as well as the sprawling and vast terrain of London. What the production does so well is recognises the specificity of the time and era, but also conveys how Oliver Twist is a story for the here and now. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final few moments where the ensemble, whilst celebrating Oliver Twist’s escape from the brutal gang of pickpockets, ask the audience how much really has changed in terms of society’s treatment of the most vulnerable. This is a stunning production, expertly directed by Amy Leach, and performed brilliantly by a stellar cast.
Oliver Twist is playing the Leeds Playhouse until 20 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Leeds Playhouse website.