It’s been 175 years since Charles Dickens penned Oliver Twist, and with each new film, theatre, and “Great Illustrated Classics” retelling, this story of a poor cockney lad grows ever more familiar. As the Drayton Festival Theatre prepares for another revival of Oliver!, the much-loved musical adaptation, does director Tracey Flye feel intimidated trying to breathe new life into this old warhorse?
“No … I think as a director, you always have to look at things from a fresh perspective and not try to leave that much weight on it,” said Flye. “That can leave you mired in, ‘Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!’ You have to look at it as a brand new thing.”This might seem easier said than done, but for Flye, a key to adapting the play is considering its contemporary parallels.
“You have a story that is universal about good overcoming evil,” she said. “You’re dealing with child labour in 1837, but we see stuff all the time about kids in clothing factories. All of that is still sadly happening.”
She continued, “I think there’s an interesting relationship between Nancy and Bill Sykes. She’s obviously an abused woman, and she stays with him for a very long time. That’s something that unfortunately still echoes in our society.”
Not to mention income inequality, of which little Oliver is only too aware. Certainly there are plenty of places – including some not far from home – with kids living distinctly Oliver-esque lives.
“These are all things where we don’t go, ‘Oh yeah, way back then when that used to happen, and doesn’t exist anymore.’ A lot of it still does, which is sort of sad, but it allows us to look at it from a different perspective.”
OK, so contemporary relevance is established, but there are other challenges. W.C. Fields – a man familiar with Dickens adaptations – often advised never to work with children or animals. With Oliver!, Flye directs a choir of 24 child singers, in addition to the young cast. But, despite this harsh sentiment, Flye has warm words for the cast, particularly the 13-year-old star.
“Aiden Tye is extraordinary. What I love about him is, he has a real maturity. He’s only 13 years old, but I would speak to him as an adult, and he gets it, but then he can go off and play with the kids. It makes me really happy, because he’s a kid.”
Perhaps it’s possible to make Oliver Twist more than a dusty relic. But what about the greatest challenge of all: the scene in which the head of the workhouse reacts to Oliver’s request for “more” with an appalled “MOOORE?!” Can this scene be anything other than kitsch?
“I encourage the cast to play things honestly,” she said. “The way it’s written is that Mr. Bumble responds in that way because he can’t believe a child would question his authority, or have the balls or cheekiness to still be hungry. As long as [the actors] react honestly to what’s happening, that moment lives as anyone would expect it to.”
This attitude sums up her overall approach, Flye says. “It has a little bit of a darker edge to it – not that it’s scary and foreboding and inaccessible – but I’ve tried to be a little more honest with it and not play up the musical-comedy.”
Whether it’s your first helping of Oliver! or you’re coming back for “MOOORE,” the show runs at the Drayton Festival Theatre from August 14 to 31. Tickets can be ordered at draytonentertainment.com, or by calling