Oliver Twist, Lyric Hammersmith

Gruelling, yet satisfying - who could ask for more?

Are you one of those people who can't bear the fake Cockney jauntiness of Oliver! ? Do you think fondly of Herod whenever you hear those workhouse boys launch into "Food, Glorious Food" while dancing with a brio that proclaims a generous, well-balanced diet. Would you rather sit an exam than "Consider yerself part of the family"?

If so, help is at hand in the shape of Neil Bartlett's new stage version of Dickens' classic novel. It manages to project a potent theatricality at the same time as rescuing the story from the sanitising clutches of Lionel Bart.

In this adaptation, for example, Nancy (Kellie Shirley) is no buxom torch singer from musical comedy, but a painted teenage prostitute with a violent boss of a lover. Jordan Metcalfe's extraordinarily intense and traumatised Oliver looks almost permanently on the point of collapse, communicating the toll on a child's nervous system of this assault course of ordeals. And Michael Feast's predatory Fagin is allowed to play the prison scene, omitted from most other versions, where the Jewish fence becomes deranged with terror on the night before he is hanged.

Visited by the now gentrified, white-suited Oliver, he has to be dragged away from the boy like a stricken, bereaved parent, re-emphasising how the story is patterned round the succession of ironically contrasted surrogate families (workhouse, thieves' den, bourgeois heaven) that are proffered to the orphan child.

This adaptation retains all the compulsiveness of the original, and even the (musically rather dull) interventions from the chorus are cut-and-paste collages of lines from the book. But no attempt is made to reproduce the novel in all its detail or to convert the proceedings into a realistic drama.

Instead, Bartlett concentrates on the underlying dream logic of a work that plays on our most primitive terrors and deepest fantasies of wish fulfilment.

Accordingly, a child's perspective is established by Rae Smith's imaginative set which is like a gigantic Victorian "penny dreadful" machine. In this spookily atmospheric emptied space, the story unfolds in a series of cross fades, jump cuts, tableaux and winched-down public notices.

Often, the effect is of a psychological diagram. For example, there is a wonderful moment when Rose, Oliver's middle-class Good Angel, floats into the freeze frame of Bill Sykes on the point of braining Nancy, the proletarian Good Angel who pays for her compassion with her life.

As with every adaptation, you wonder what happened to all those boys back in the workhouse. From being a general indictment of the state's inhumanity, the piece turns into the success story of a boy who was a little toff all along.

The novel of social protest jars with the romance elements. But, in its own terms, this Oliver Twist is richly satisfying. Unlike its hero, you aren't left asking for more.

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