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Review: Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist: An Oliver Twisted Tale at The Lowry is ‘timely and easy going entertainment’

This week The Lowry is staging Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist: An Oliver Twisted Tale, and unexpected and twisted it is.

A cast of ten endeavours to bring to life the beloved Dickens narrative, by reframing it through a modern-day lens which has echoes of the traditional story to reinforce the parallels between both narratives.

Developed from the minds of Michael Rosen, who set out to help children lift Dickens’ work off the page, and Roy Williams, a well-respected dramatist who has a host of plays under his belt, Unexpected Twist features original songs written collaboratively between Conrad Murray and Yaya Bey.

Most audiences are familiar with the centuries-old story, so the plot of Unexpected Twist is relatively easy to pick up. Shona (Drew Hylton) embodies Oliver Twist.

It is her first day at a new school, having to relocate since her father (Thomas Vernal) has obtained a crushing debt following the death of her mother. Her new schoolmates laugh and joke about each other being poor. Shona is soon singled out as she is the only one without a phone, but is given one by a peer in the class in return for a favour. As luck would have it, the class syllabus features Oliver Twist, and as Shona reads the text, she begins to recognise similarities between herself and Twist…

Shona’s Nan (Polly Lister) doubles as Fagin, with her fingers in various pies including money laundering and drug dealing. Classmates Desree (Kate Donnachie), Rosie (Nadine Rose Johnson), Rasheda (Liyah Summers), and Tino (Alexander Lobo Moreno) double as Dodger, while Gazz (Alex Hardie) embodies Charlie Bates and excluded student Pops (James Meteyard) symbolises both Noah Claypole and Bill Sikes.

The class is led by Miss Cavani (Rosie Hilal) who signifies Nancy, a character who both orchestrates and guides the characters.

Shona has a troubling home life, her father is struggling to pay rent, and so they live off cheap cones of chips every day.

But she believes she has a solution – since successfully carrying out a favour for Tino, Shona is trusted by Pops to take on more jobs, which he pays her for.

Shona believes she can use this cash to improve her and her father’s living situation, but does not realise the mess she is getting into.

The cast overall are great. Their voices have plenty of opportunity to be showcased throughout the performance through the original songs that punctuate the play.

In fact, the entire soundscape is provided by the mouths of the cast, including the underlying music that scores the beatboxing verses. This is a particularly unique aspect of the show.

There is a whole lot of enthusiasm on stage, especially from Lister as the Nan, who is a delight to see and hear.

The set is simple, while effective. Designed with a space in the centre to transform between a classroom, to playground, to gang den and a market square, with cupboards on the right and left sides that provide market rails stocked with clothing, and lockers for the school.

There are enlarged steps on either side that lead up to the top of the set, where there are three doors that stand across the top of the back wall.

These are the doors that the ghosts of Oliver Twist’s characters come in and out of, looming above the action of the Unexpected Twist’s characters down below.

The costumes for Dickens’ characters are vibrant while remaining old timely, meanwhile the modern characters adorn drab school uniforms of grey and navy.

An unmissable costume choice was to dress Miss Cavani with various red items of clothing, whether a crimson shirt or scarlet overcoat which emphasises her correlation to Nancy.

Overall, Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist is a night of easy-going entertainment. Though, it is difficult to gauge who the intended audience is.

While the marketing advises it is suitable for audiences aged 8 and upwards, themes of domestic abuse, money laundering, and drug dealing may be either too deep or too far above the heads of younger audience members.

However, the writing and means by which it is presented are definitely catered for younger audiences. On the whole, it is generally a safe bet for younger families.

Michael Rosen’s Unexpected Twist: An Oliver Twisted Tale is on at The Lowry, Salford until Sunday 7th May 2023.

The show runs for approximately two hours, including a twenty-minute interval.

Tickets start at £16 and can be purchased here.

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