Review of ‘Unexpected Twist’: “The performance is everything”

Charles Dicken’s beloved classic is revamped for the 21st century in this new musical adaptation of Michael Rosen’s children’s novel. Guillermo Nazara reviews the show upon his attendance to its world premiere in Northampton, to share his thoughts about a piece whose original plot seems to be more current now than never before.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Over a century has passed since such words of wisdom first got into print – only to be ignored in the most gruesome ways for years and years to come. War, hatred, bigotry… Just name the glitch and you’ll find a million examples of humankind going through it over and over again. Charles Dickens’s devastation about child poverty (added to the extreme abuse that the youngest ones were facing in the Victorian era) splashed all over the pages of his magnum opus – leading to a timeless classic whose moral, despite its never-ending popularity, doesn’t seem to apply to everybody even by today’s standards.

Michael Rosen’s updated version of probably the world’s most famous orphan (just get over it, Punkie) gets one final twist (the author made me do it…) through the theatrical adaptation of his renowned novel. Always maintaining a clear reference to the source material (Dicken’s book is, after all, the leads’ school assignment), both the paperback and stage concepts provide the public with an interesting introspect of two crucial topics: the timeless relatability of an artistic masterpiece and, most importantly, an alarming reality that hasn’t truly distanced away from us regardless of its 19th-century origins.

Going through a musical makeover on its journey from the sheets to the boards, the quality of this production is, with certainty, its strongest and most admirable trait. Featuring a simple, functional yet visually-appealing set (credit to Frankie Bradshaw), which reinforced by Rory Beaton’s magnetic lighting design, the entire performance manages to devise a seamless coherent atmosphere, where time and space (whether it be scene or period) transition flawlessly and in good pace – supplying its audience with all necessary tools for sustained interest when it comes to appearance and, especially, a clear understanding of what’s been told.

With a book by Roy Williams and songs by Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray (the latter also serving as the show’s Musical Director), its melodic rap score includes a few interesting tunes, leading in consequence to several praisable numbers, most notably due to the cast’s impressive skills and engagement in their renditions. We’ll be dissecting it all in the next paragraph (yes, it’s not over, deal with it!). However, both script and repertoire are not a finished product, as some of the songs are in need of further development, both in duration but also when it comes to structure (also regarding the general storytelling) as well as more subtlety in its lyrics and dialogues.

Moving on to the show’s troupe, nothing else can be said but genuine words of esteem for each and every single member. Relying on a young cast for all the main parts, the credibility and stamina put into their performance is no less than intoxicating, added up to their very competent (sometimes splendid) vocals – a most laudable achievement on this occasion, providing that none of the arrangements are supported by a band or any pre-recorded tracks, but just their beat-boxing and harmonizing skills.

With an uptempo narrative and compelling awareness of both art and social concerns, Unexpected Twist is a charming initial try on something that, even though must undergo some further polishing, has the spark in its DNA to trigger some fireworks. Now about to start a tour around the UK, this could give the creatives the opportunity to make the improvements that will allow it to endure. After all, the theatre is a living creature, and this one is just starting to lose its baby teeth.

All pictures credit to Manuel Harlan.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Unexpected Twist plays at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre until 25 February before embarking on its national tour. Tickets for all venues and further information are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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