“Please, sir, I want some more.” Oliver Twist originally uttered this plaintive cry regarding an additional serving of gruel. But for the past 170 years, theatergoers have made similar appeals regarding additional servings of Oliver Twist. The most frequently adapted of Charles Dickens’s novels, Oliver Twist had inspired 10 versions on London stages even before Dickens completed and published the final chapter in 1893. Thirty years later, at least 90 other melodramas, lampoons, and burlesque operettas about the orphan boy had joined their ranks. So director Neil Bartlett, an old hand at adaptations, should consider himself very much at home in translating the novel to the stage for Theatre for a New Audience.
Bartlett’s particular stage, courtesy of longtime collaborator Rae Smith, is a grimy one. Smith has constructed a tumbledown box, arrayed with all manner of trapdoors and hidden flaps. (Smith’s costumes also balance the ingenious and decayed.) Inside this box, an able cast shifts between passages of dialogue and third-person narration, nearly all drawn verbatim from the novel. Bartlett’s innovations aren’t textual. He leaves Dickens’s language more or less inviolate while messing about with the staging, combining contemporary techniques with those from the melodramatic stage and the music hall (footlights, song breaks, frequent tableaux).
This mix of old and new makes for some arresting images. It also moves the story along swiftly, as characters take the narrative passages in turn, though Carson Elrod, the actor playing the Artful Dodger, receives the greatest share. Bartlett even has a bit of respectful fun with the authorial voice, commissioning composer Gerard McBurney to set many of Dickens’s moralizing passages to music. But though he can draw on centuries of theatrical techniques, Bartlett hasn’t solved the central problem for any adaptation—how to make the character of Oliver interesting.
The chorus explains in the first moments that the play “shows, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance.” But “principles of Good” don’t translate very well on stage. They can’t prance like the Artful Dodger or scheme like Fagin or threaten like Bill Sykes. Mostly, as played by Michael Wartella, Oliver can tremble and cower. Wartella makes a valiant effort, but ultimately becomes a sort of absence in the show’s midst, orphaning poor Oliver once again.