Twitchy moustaches and scallywags

Alberta Theatre Projects puts a rollicking fantastical Twist on Dickens classic

Producing a canonized piece of literature for the stage has something in common with late 18th century art schools where students reproduced the classics stroke by stroke to learn the master’s techniques. Less important was the content — everyone knew what the Mona Lisa looked like just as everyone knows the story of Oliver Twist — giving way to the importance of form. And that’s about as far as the analogy extends.

Alberta Theatre Projects’ (ATP) bombastic interpretation of Oliver Twist has more in common with Salvador Dali’s version of DaVinci’s famous work (that of the twirly vaudevillian mustache) than it does with a faithful reproduction of the Dickens classic. The English accents are gone the costumes are about as far from Victorian fashion as possible and each performance has a modern slant that paints the old story with a certain immediacy. Moreover it has an exciting playfulness that would be tough to get out of an afternoon spent in a drawing room with a dusty old book.

The colourful rock-star-inspired costume design and minimal set places this Twist in a fantastic realm an order removed from 1830s London. It’s more Wonderland than historical drama surprisingly closer to expressionism than realism. Joel Smith’s Artful Dodger exemplifies this: he slinks around stage dressed like a poster boy for Cool Britannia spewing cockney grinning in a way that’s at once both charming and menacing. Then it hits you and you realize he’s the Dodger you always pictured when you read the book even if he doesn’t begin to resemble Dickens’s description. Haysam Kadri is similarly memorable as a younger charismatic Fagin and Rylan Wilkie is nothing but distilled Sex Pistols anarchy-cool with his shaved head tattoos and pool cue billy club. By virtue of style alone — and Twist has it in abundance— ATP’s production is arguably more resonant with a modern audience than the original novel.

It isn’t without its small flaws. The problem with any iteration of Twist is the relative blandness of the titular hero to the other characters and environment and ATP’s version is no different. Director Bob White’s attempted solution is to have Patrick Quinn play Oliver for sympathy rather than empathy. The result is a hopelessly pathetic character who really does seem to be as sickly and dim-witted as the antagonists continually state throughout.

That said the sequence in which Fagin Dodger and Charlie teach Oliver to be a pickpocket does manage to evoke the “I’m-watching-but-I-feel-bad” gut-wrench usually reserved for the Special Olympics and burn ward orphans. Oliver’s mouth lolls open in brain-addled concentration and explodes into a victorious grin when he finally gets it. And you’re happy for him when he does. That’s not the problem. The problem is that you’re happy for him in the way you’re happy for a puppy who catches a Frisbee. White and Quinn are so successful in making Oliver sympathetic that they make him impossible to relate to on any level higher than “hooray the puppy caught the Frisbee!” In other words for all the audience sympathy they gain for Oliver they’re ultimately forcing us out of his shoes transforming character into caricature. That isn’t to say Quinn plays his caricature badly. It’s just that the appeal of Oliver Twist has never really been about Oliver and this choice might acknowledge that fact a little too well. Indeed for the most part Quinn’s unobtrusiveness is perfectly appropriate.

Another problem is the music. The style and esthetic of the production sets it apart from the folkloric musical film from the word go — to great effect. Then about once each act a few characters will inexplicably break into a 30-second musical number with banal lyrics not connected to the narrative in any meaningful way and an embarrassingly bad plinky ploinky synth-rock accompaniment. Thankfully they’re over quickly.

What’s strange about the music though is that composer-sound designer Kevin McGugan proves that he’s capable of so much more the second the lights go down and his filmic “theme music” cues up. It’s still synth-rock sure but it sounds finely honed rather than slapped-together. It’s synth-rock doing what only synth-rock would be capable of in this context: complementing the other design choices with its absolute outrageousness. Compared with the nearly perfect opening score the musical bits sprinkled throughout just feel like a terribly jarring afterthought. Luckily they’re a small blemish on what is otherwise an outstanding production.

While Oliver Twist might seem an odd choice of holiday play it’s surely one of the best available to theatregoers this year. With its rollicking style flare and impressive gall ATP’s Twist is set apart from the story’s varied incarnations in the best possible way — what should be the goal of any reinterpretation of a classic. Fresh-feeling despite its old age Oliver Twist positively flaunts what’s possible with an original spin (or twirly mustache).