Glendale’s adventurous A Noise Within applies a nakedly theatrical, two-planks-and-a-passion treatment to Neil Bartlett’s “Oliver Twist” adaptation, accruing a remarkable degree of the novel’s narrative force. Taking us to some of Dickens’ darkest places, this is no Christmas show. But the theme Bartlett emphasizes and the talented cast carries out — the overwhelming human need for the shelter of family — seems particularly resonant as Thanksgiving and yuletide near in this time of deprivation.
The U.K. scribe makes exclusive use of Dickens’ own text in crafting dialogue, narration and even the lyrics for sung commentary set to David O’s haunting choral melodies. These musical poems themselves establish a performers’ community, reminding us of the belonging to which the angelic-faced Oliver (Brian Dare) pathetically aspires.
Production’s theatricality is put to substantive use. Once the company shifts boards, chairs and sawhorses to establish each of the boy’s woeful environments under Ken Booth’s smoky, eerie lighting, helmer Julia Rodriguez-Elliott carefully establishes the dynamic of each “family” and its potential impact on the sad little orphan: The workhouse is terrifyingly robotic, like Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”; Sowerberry’s Funeral Home is a human horror show in which the dead are better off.
Nowhere is the helmer’s care more evident than in Oliver’s introduction to Fagin (Tom Fitzpatrick) and his youthful felons. While in most dramatizations the thesps overact wildly to bring out the gang’s eccentricities, here the thieves’ den is played as a place of refuge and good fun.
It’s the first kindness of the boy’s young life, so we can understand its attraction even as we dread the impact these fiends are sure to have on his survival.
Already Dickens’ most passive hero, Oliver gets few chances to reveal his reactions and thought processes, which limits our empathy.
Despite Dare’s sweetness, Oliver becomes a symbol more than a living presence, a virtual puppet of the dramaturgy.
Otherwise the company creates a virtual Dickens storybook, deepening the portraits we’ve come to know in weaker adaptations. Apollo Dukakis brings out the humanity in the officious Bumble, Jill Hill the erotic needs of the prostitute Nancy. William Dennis Hunt makes benefactor Brownlow, usually played as a mere wealthy coot, the weary repository of old sorrow.
Fitzpatrick’s cackling Nosferatu has great fun with Fagin’s oddly avuncular impulses. All traces of the character’s Semitism are removed (one of production’s rare Dickensian departures), but thesp never backs away from his perfidy, slithering viper-like to a scaffolding as he reveals Nancy’s betrayal to a towering Bill Sykes (Geoff Elliott).
With so much ingenuity at work, it’d be miraculous if none of the devices seemed over-thought or superfluous. The text calls for periodic momentary tableaux, perhaps to evoke the original “Boz” illustrations, but minus the captions (and under indifferent lighting) they don’t work at all. The effect of briefly draping Bill in a giant stained canvas, after his final confrontation with Nancy, hardly seems worth all the trouble.
And the far, far upstage space of A Noise Within’s thrust continues to prove its no man’s land, with Fagin’s mad scene unable to grab us despite Fitzpatrick’s nuanced delivery. The final choral ode, which ought to send a shiver up the spine and unite us in sympathy with the ensemble, simply becomes one more number.
Over its swiftly moving two hours, the more this “Oliver Twist” brings the action downstage, the more it enters the heart. Happily, it does so more often than not.