Oliver Twist, Octagon Theatre, Bolton<br/>Zorro, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A new Twist to shout about
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Deborah McAndrew's new version of Oliver Twist reaches corners and characters which most adaptors of Dickens's original tale overlook. Along with the rogues' gallery of well-known grotesques there are also some fine cameos, brought to vivid life in Josette Bushell-Mingo's assured production.

On a higgledy-piggledy set by Dawn Allsopp, an intriguing pop-up picture presents 19th-century London slums and chimneys in all their industrial grime. A hard-working cast of seven professional actors, making lightning transitions between characters, along with a colourful clutch of pickpockets and extras drawn from a team of 28 young people, capture Dickens's mix of grim realism and satirical commentary. The story, framed between two Christmases, opens with Oliver's mother making her way to the workhouse and giving birth. The depiction of her demise and the various other deaths, the many brutal beatings and the miserable trappings of poverty and misfortune in which Oliver finds himself, are both cunningly devised and sensitively handled so as not to put off the predominantly family audience. Sanitised it may be, but not to the extent that the unromantic and sordid nature of life in Dickens's London becomes a fairytale.

Oliver, a vulnerable, waif-like figure as played by Alex O'Loughlin (alternating in the role with Joseph Cullen), remains something of an outsider, an outcast drifting through each stage of his fate as it is determined by the criminals and hypocrites who people his world. Robert Pickavance makes Fagin engagingly chameleon in character, and turns out a gossipy, camp Mr Grimwig and also, in passing, a biting Justice Fang. Esther Ruth Elliott is a tender Nancy and Samantha Sutherland a sweet Aunt Rose, a character often left out but retained by McAndrews. There is good work from the whole company, Tim Frances making an especially good stab at both evil Bill Sikes (whose role is downsized here) and the unscrupulous Bumble, while Andrew Price is a benign, bookish Mr Brownlow.

Conrad Nelson's score, under the direction of Rebekah Hughes, manages to sound both fresh and familiar through its use of Christmas carols and fragments of English folksong. The cast plays a dizzying range of instruments and the music, in tune with the expressive and bravura performances Bushell-Mingo encourages from the actors, is seamlessly integrated into the speech as an inseparable part of the event. The show has enough of the feel of a theatrical extravaganza, the flavour of a gaudy musical and yet the intimacy of the dark social novel on which it is based to beguile all ages.

Zorro, a captivating take on the masked outlaw created in 1919, has loads of appeal too. Co-produced by the Traverse Theatre and the children's company Visible Fictions, and incisively written by Davey Anderson, Zorro is a racey-pacey adventure brought vividly to life by a versatile cast. Just three actors switch between goodies and baddies, peasants and aristocrats, while voicing a horse and a parrot too.

No tyrant or traitor is safe from the justice of the mysterious Zorro, who leaves his mark – a distinctive "Z" carved with his sword – on those who bully, torture, steal and threaten the lives of others. Sandy Grierson is a touchingly simple Diego, slipping with rapier-like agility into the role of master swordsman and skilled horseman Zorro, while Claire Dargo makes an appealingly feisty Isabella, whom Zorro secretly loves. Richard Conlon doubles deftly as the dozy old Governor and the treacherous and cruel Captain Esteban.

In the pulse-quickening narrative and in the accompanying cartoon-like action, scenes change with the enticing rapidity of a flick book.

Oliver Twist: to 23 January (01204 520661)

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