This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
In his later years, when Charles Dickens had become an international celebrity, he took to the stage and toured, playing his most famous characters from Oliver Twist with such passion and ferocity that it is thought that the energy expended could have shortened his life. James Swanton, around three decades younger, has adapted Dickens’ script and, performing it himself with great intensity, he shows us how this material could have taken such a toll on its writer. Dressed entirely in black throughout, Swanton begins with Fagin, his rubber face making the character even more grotesque than we have seen him before. Bizarre inflections in the actor’s delivery exaggerate the creepiness of this character and all the others portrayed. The story goes through from Fagin’s discovery of Nancy’s betrayal to her horrific murder by Sikes and, finally, Sikes’ own demise. It is a story of shade and shade, a Gothic horror melodrama enacted against the backdrop of the darkest corners of Victorian London. Gaunt and sallow, Swanton often resembles a young Boris Karloff, his deep and gravelly tones emitting menace with every utterance, except when he raises his voice to a sort of spoken falsetto to play the whimpering Nancy, fearful and doomed.. The only minor criticism of his performance is that he makes Fagin and Sikes, characters who are both sinister but for different reasons, too similar. Matt Leventhall’s lighting is particularly effective in creating visual images to match the vividly descriptive words being spoken. Swanton is frequently seen emerging from smoky darkness, only his face and arms visible, both pale and later splattered with blood. This hour of theatre shows us the stuff from which nightmares are made.
Photo: Edward Quekett
Performance date: 11 December 2014