This Christmas, the Tobacco Factory is hosting a show that wouldn’t immediately be identified as festive. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens’ famous tale of the dark Victorian London underbelly, is brought into present-day Bristol with the hope that the story contains enough heart and adventure to bring warmth to audiences’ souls.
Oliver, played with wide-eyed innocence by Defender Nyanhete, is born orphaned in a Somerset workhouse but escapes the clutches of his oppressors – first the workhouse foreman and then a cruel undertaker – and runs all the way to South Bristol. There he finds the welcoming arms – bearing Jammy Dodgers – of the famous Artful Dodger, the crafty Fagin and her band of underage Bedminster sneak thieves.
Often when well-known tales are transposed to the current day it can feel forced or hamfisted. With this adaptation of Oliver Twist, though, it feels natural and refreshing. The pickpocket scallywags of Bemmy establish their own kind of wealth redistribution, seizing what they think they’re owed from the hoity toity Cliftonites, who in turn only got rich from fiddling the tax man. The heavy Bristolian accent of Beverly Rudd’s Fagin, swaddled in her piratical glad rags like a charity shop Jack Sparrow, works to great comedic effect. Likewise, Alice Barclay’s Katherine, the wealthy aunt-saviour of Oliver, is a fantastic portrayal of the contientious liberal elite living north of the Park Row – rich, well-meaning, lonely and quite detached from the ‘real world’.
The main darkness in the show comes from the sinister Bill Sykes, played with menace by Dan Gaisford. He stalks across the stage, the threat of violence ever-present, including a particularly nasty threat to drown Oliver in the mud of the Avon. Some children in the audience are visibly scared. Laughs are never far away though, especially in the form of Tom Fletcher, playing both the wily and dreamlike Dodger and Katherine’s interfering maid Martha.
Perhaps against the odds, this unusual choice of Christmas show works in a way that naff pantos simply don’t. Oliver Twist stays away from your traditional festive fare, presenting a story that shows both the dark and light of life. It’s conclusion is that Christmas isn’t made wonderful by snow, or presents, or waistband-stretching mince pies. Instead it is your family, however it may be composed, that remains the most important thing.