Monday, April 19, 2004

Oliver Twist

To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last Friday, to see a version of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, adapted for the stage and directed by Neil Bartlett.

Mr Bartlett is a Balliol man, as I recall, and had a proper education. Not surprisingly, therefore, his adaptation was masterly. Neither is he any sort of slouch as a director, and from the very first moments you realise that you are in the hands of a team of professionals. I know of no higher compliment.

Of course, while sitting there watching young Oliver, I realised that in many decades of life I had somehow or other managed to avoid ever reading or seeing the full story. I never read the novel. I have seen only bits of David Lean’s famous 1948 movie starring Alec Guinness and Robert Newton. And although I heard countless versions of the songs from the Lionel Bart musical I never attended a performance. So I wasn’t entirely sure how things would turn out. But it transpires, as you might expect, that Olly survives some perfectly dreadful traumas and no doubt goes on to live a full and happy life. So that’s all right then.

Mind you, the story is pretty gruesome and sordid, and I felt that the members of the audience who had brought children under ten were pushing their luck a bit. Dickens told it pretty much like it was in early Victorian London, and Mr Bartlett made it really scary. However, Dickens was obliged to soften the truth a little, and for reality you must read Mayhew.

Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was a journalist and writer. For whatever reason, he made it his business to interview the poor and the downtrodden, those who eked out a miserable existence on the streets of London, and he published the results in a series of books generally known as London Labour and the London Poor. His work seems to be largely out of print today, but an excellent summary can be found in The Illustrated Mayhew’s London, edited by John Canning and with an introduction by Asa Briggs (1986, Weidenfeld and Nicolson). I bought a copy secondhand.

Mayhew describes in surprisingly frank detail the lives of those who struggled to survive. There were abandoned children, for example, who earned a few pence daily by collecting buckets of dog shit. Apparently there was a demand for that smelly substance from tanners.

In another case, Mayhew interviewed a young prostitute, who at the age of ten found herself living in a low lodging house, where three or four dozen boys and girls all slept together in one room. ‘The beds were horrid, filthy, and full of vermin. There was very wicked carryings on.’ Dickens knew all this, of course, just as intimately as Mayhew.

I myself used Mayhew as the source for a couple of characters in my novel Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, which is a sequel to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, written under the pen-name Anne Moore. A cracking good book, even if I do say so myself. And I am not alone. ‘An unusual and entertaining read,’ said Kirkus Reviews.

The programme for Neil Bartlett’s stage version of Oliver Twist gives no details, but the production is presumably touring and is well worth seeing if you get the chance. I don’t expect to see anything better for the next year or two.

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