The speed at which Michael Rosen’s 2018 book, Unexpected Twist has been adapted for the stage tells us a lot about the strength of his story. His idea emerged from wanting to help kids better understand Dickens and why we still read his work today. Judging by the response of the young people in the audience at The Lowry on Tuesday, both Rosen and Dickens now have a new generation of fans.
Classics last because aspects of the human condition are both universal and timeless. But Rosen takes this further in his reimagining. Some things never change, but we know they should – and this reality hits us as hard as Dickens meant for his depiction of 19th century poverty to impact his Victorian readers.
Unexpected Twist is more than an updated Oliver Twist. Here Dickens’ tale runs parallel to a modern-day story of child poverty and exploitation, by setting the action among a group of young teenagers who are reading Oliver Twist as part of a class.
Shona is the new girl in school and, as well as being a new face, she stands out because she hasn’t got a phone. When one of her classmates, Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno) offers her a brand-new phone for running a few errands, Shona can’t believe her luck. From being the butt of the class joke as they sing, ‘You ain’t got a phone’ to finding her voice in the joyous song, ‘I’ve got a phone’ Shona’s slippery slope into criminality begins.
Roy Williams’ stage adaptation keeps the story centre stage while immersing it in a beatboxing score for an energising live performance that speaks to a new generation of musical fans. Indeed, the sound created simply from the voices of the 10-strong cast is so unexpected, two of the young cast come on stage before the curtain rises to tell the audience no instruments are used in the production.
James Dacre’s direction initially feels heavy-handed, particularly in the opening classroom scene. Adults playing children can be awkward and there is a danger of patronising the intended child audience, who are often more sophisticated than these early scenes give them credit for.
However, the whole play soon picks up pace and doesn’t shy from the darker issues of Dickens’ original story – criminal gangs, domestic violence, poverty, and death.
Drew Hylton plays Shona with a sensitive mix of vulnerability and strength, as well as soaring vocals, that has us rooting for her modern-day Oliver from the start. She is supported by a terrific young cast, who often take on multiple roles, as well as voicing the atmospheric score.
At the final curtain call these vocal talents are given a chance to shine with a few minutes of improvised beatboxing. After a story that has taken us to some of the darkest corners of life, this final hurrah leaves everyone energised, upbeat, and wanting some more.
Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist is at The Lowry from 2-7 May 2023. Age 8+