As a big fan of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist, I went into the show not quite certain why a modern retelling of what, to me, seemed a fairly simple story, was even necessary. Having now seen it put into a more modern setting, predominantly with a younger audience in mind, I understand why the messages are so important in today’s world.
Unexpected Twist is based on the 2018 novel by Michael Rosen, which was the author’s attempt at dragging the classic story of Oliver Twist into a contemporary context. When the new girl in class, the poverty-stricken Shona, is seemingly given a new phone out of nowhere by one of her classmates, she can’t believe her luck. Gradually, Shona realises that everything comes at a price, as she gets herself enmeshed with a gang of youths working for Bill Sikes and Fagin-type characters.
This stage adaptation is interspersed with original songs by songwriters Conrad Murray and Yaya Bey, with no soundtrack or live band – instead, all sounds in the show are created by the impressive beatboxing cast.
There was not a weak link among the cast, with Drew Hylton as Shona leading the way with some incredible vocal talent. She was ably backed by her class of beatboxers and singers, with the sounds produced by James Meteyard and Alex Hardie in particular providing some spine-tingling moments.
While the hip-hop songs and the beatboxing were thoroughly impressive, being the soppy old man that I am, it was the ballads that mesmerised me most of all. My favourite moments came in the two touching songs, ‘No More Chips’ and ‘I Remember the Beach’ performed by Shona and her father, played with a gentle vulnerability alongside soft soothing vocals by Thomas Vernal.
The set was superb, deceptively simple, but ingenious in its design, with lots of ways the cast could interact with it, as well as plenty of hidden elements which enabled us to be transported to a different setting at the drop of a hat.
It would be very easy to dismiss this as “one for the kids”, but in fact there was much for adults to learn from this, particularly for those with children of school age. Times are so different for children compared to when I was at school, with social and economic conditions particularly over the last decade or so meaning that our children are feeling a completely different type of pressure to what most of us may have experienced growing up. But with this clever retelling, and staging, Dickens’ tale of social and economic struggle appears more relevant than ever.
Unexpected Twist continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until the 1st April. Tickets are available via norwichtheatre.org