Categories: Hull Truck Theatre; Theatre
There is an order to this time of year. The pudding has been stirred and the holly pushed behind the picture frames. As the first frosts glisten and cold hands are slipped into woollen gloves, the Hull Truck Christmas show is next in the march towards toe-toasting fires, flickering candles and fruit laden cakes served with wedges of Yorkshire cheese. It is as warming as hot mulled wine and as fragrant as cinnamon sticks simmering gently on the stove.
This year’s offering is another Charles Dicken’s favourite, Oliver Twist, just as delightful as last year’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, written by talented Deborah McAndrew and directed by Mark Babych, but it is an Oliver with a barley sugar Twist that is wonderfully sweet; not shying away from the darker side of Victorian England, but cleverly preserving the nostalgia of a bygone era and including some inventive character re-arrangements.
The set is stark; a wooden gantry that spans the auditorium and pillared arches set across the stage area. It’s not often that the carpenters of a production are called to attention, but here they must be given full credit. Christopher Bewers, Andrew Ross and Paul Veysey have executed Ciaran Bagnall’s design beautifully, and the workmanship is an extraordinarily visual piece of engineering that is not only pivotal to the action, but aesthetically fascinating as an installation work in its own right. Characters hide in the shadows and traverse the thoroughfares of the space, shifting through workhouse, den of thieves, the streets of London and gentleman’s residence with liminal grace.
Siân Thomas, as costume designer, has selected a colour palette that is exquisitely rendered. The utilitarian charcoals, storm greys, oatmeals and tans of the early part of the show are reminiscent of the durable shades of the Shaker movement who had oversight of many of the orphanages of Dickens’ day, but as Oliver leaves the confinements of the workhouse, the elements subtly shift, ushering in those gorgeous aqua tints, rusty brown-reds, rich teals, ochres and subdued golds that appear on Victorian Christmas cards. Fagin and Artful Dodger’s costumes are particularly splendid, but they are all noteworthy and united together by the washing line of colourful ‘pockets’ the visual impact is stunning.
The night I watched the show, Henry Armstrong was playing Oliver and Erin Findlay was the Artful Dodger. Both gave impeccable performances, but a huge round of applause needs to go to the entire young company who were all accomplished beyond their years, gave some wonderfully nuanced renditions and never dropped concentration once, making every gesture and head turn meaningful.
There were so many delightful characters. Who couldn’t love the irascible Charlotte, endearing Mr Grimwig, lustful Widow Corney and crow-like Mrs Sowerberry, or fail to get the shivers from heartless Bill Sykes? My personal favourite was Flo Wilson’s extravagantly pleasing Fagin, but everybody will have their own.
Special mention needs to go to Oghenekevwe Emefe, for whom this production was her professional stage debut, and what a stand-out job she made of it. Playing three characters, but her Rose was divine; sweet, caring and utterly delightful. She deserves so much success in all that is to come.
A Christmas show must have music, and Oliver Twist has it by the workhouse bowlful. Carols, Nursery Rhymes, Folk Songs and lyrics written especially for the production are blended and layered into a rich textural whole that weaves a warm blanket around the telling of the tale. There are some incredibly beautiful solo voices in the cast and working as an ensemble the evocation of gas lit streets, muffled and caped wassailers and flagons of seasonal ale is touchable.
Hull Truck’s Oliver Twist is a treat to the senses, every part thought through thoroughly. It is the essence of traditional Christmas captured in colour, music and wonderful story-telling and has the good cheer of a league of merry gentlemen with nothing, absolutely nothing, that could possibly dismay.
Please, Hull Truck, may we have some more?
'Oliver Twist' is running at Hull Truck Theatre until January 5, 2019.