It is almost two years to the day (29 September 2016) since Tony Adigun’s innovative take on Dickens’ timeless tale first took to this stage. There is an important geographical association with this particular venue since Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in his Doughty Street residence – now the Charles Dickens Museum – just a short walk from The Place.    

Avant Garde Dance in <i>Fagin's Twist</i> © Rachel Cherry
Avant Garde Dance in Fagin's Twist
© Rachel Cherry

This performance opened a new autumn tour for Adigun’s Avant Garde Dance Company, taking in eight venues. Fagin's Twist certainly lives up to the company’s mantra of ‘Innovate not Replicate’. Adigun has created an intelligent, fresh drama based on Dickens’ familiar characters, in a hybrid of thoughtful text and compelling movement, which is itself a sophisticated offspring from the union of hip-hop and contemporary dance.   

Adigun and his dramaturg, Adam Peck, have deconstructed Dickens' novel by shining a new light on the well-known characters of Fagin and Bill (Sykes) and how they came to be underworld associates. The contribution of Maxwell Golden’s script is also significant and the decision to replace Dickens’ text with more contemporary language was a courageous risk that has paid dividends. Occasional references to memorable lines from Lionel Bart’s lyrics in the 1968 film musical (Oliver!) accentuate Golden’s text with a popular series of reference points.  

While Fagin’s Twist is the product of a mix of outstanding creative contributions, Adigun’s slick and compact choreography is a dominating factor, establishing character and relationships, and pulsating with momentum and musicality. Yann Seabra's set design is another significant plus.   At first sight, these are simply mobile panels made of wooden planks – with duckboards as platforms – but as the performance progresses, concealed openings turn these utilitarian sight screens into diverse uses. They become the workhouse, Fagin's loft, and the rooftops and streets of London. One of many twists is that it is not Oliver, but young Fagin and Bill (in an imagined prequel to Dickens’ narrative) to whom we are first introduced in the workhouse. 

Only Aaron Nuttall reprises his role from that London première of two years ago, as (the artful) Dodger, who as well as being the organiser of Fagin’s gang, is also the show’s narrator,  occasionally recapping events with condensed snippets of explanatory text. Nuttall is outstanding both in speech and his audacious range of movement, particularly when both skills are exercised simultaneously.

The gender-fluid conceit of Oliver being portrayed by a female dancer continues with Sia Gbamoi – another cast survivor from the 2016 tour – stepping up to what would normally be the title role. Her character is only identified in the last seconds of the first act; although – with only seven performers – Adigun very cleverly recycles his leads as the “corps” in a way that doesn’t seem odd. Even when the dancers playing Nancy and (spoiler alert) Fagin “come back from the dead” to dance in the group finale, the strength of the group – helped by a little disguise – overcomes any confusion.

Although Oliver has lost the title, the character emerges victorious – the most treacherous amongst this gang of honourless thieves – as Fagin’s twist is to be deposed and replaced as the pickpocketing gangmaster; his avarice and status denoted by the pocket watch he had always wanted to own (and buy with his own cash) and the fur-collared, full-length russet coat, which serves as the uniform of authority. As Fagin, Arran Green – just a year from graduating at the London School of Contemporary Dance – was returning to his alma mater, to make this debut for Avant Garde Dance. Stefano A. Addae – an emerging dancer of considerable talent – joined him as Bill. One end that remained loose, in a relatively abrupt conclusion, is what happens to Sykes after the shocking denouement. 

The best of the new performers in terms of dramatic impact was Ellis Saul who brought the human side of Nancy into vivid realisation. There is a poignant and well-executed scene between Saul and Gbamoi, as Nancy and Oliver, where spoken text and difficult movement are co-ordinated with pinpoint precision. Throughout two hours of absorbing dance theatre, the group movement required this razor sharp tightness, with the seven dancers often also interacting with aspects of the set along the way. In terms of characterisation – Nuttall and Saul exempted – I think there is further richness to be gained but as a dance ensemble they were outstanding.

Embracing a lively original score (composed by Seymour Milton and Benji Bower) and Jackie Shemesh’s impactful lighting, this first full-length production by Adigun shows his determined, resourceful and expert touch in bringing excellent creative contributions together and applying purposeful direction to ensure that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. Here, I hope and believe, is a career firmly set on an upwards trajectory and already occupying its own distinctive room within a very crowded house.   

 

 

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