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Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist

Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist

Unexpected Twist is the re-telling of the Charles Dickens classic, Oliver Twist, by one of the best-loved figures in the children’s book world, Michael Rosen. Combining two stories in one; Rosen’s story and the Dickens classic that inspired it. Two stories that twist together, unexpectedly!

Shona and her class are studying the book, Oliver Twist. She’s the new girl in school and is finding it hard to stay out of trouble – much like Oliver himself! When she’s given a new phone by a stranger, she begins to suspect there’s something unusual about the new boys she’s met.

Michel Rosen is the English children’s novelist, poet, and the author of 140 books. He served as Children’s Laureate from June 2007 to June 2009. He has been a TV presenter and a political columnist, and his books include Carrying the Elephant: A Memoir of Love and Loss and Uncle Billy Being Silly.

This thrilling production is brought to vivid life by The Children’s Theatre Partnership, whose shows have included Animal Farm, Holes and The Jungle Book. Directed by James Dacre (2020 Olivier Award nominated Our Lady of Kibeho), Rosen’s novel is adapted for the stage by BAFTA award winning playwright Roy Williams with original music by rising R&B star Yaya Bey and BAC Beatbox Academy’s Conrad Murray.

Age Recommendation 9+ 

Watch our interview with Conrad Murray who talks about the production coming to The Lowry, Salford...


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Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist ON TOUR

Our review on Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist

Michael Rosen's Unexpected Twist - The Lowry, Salford - Tuesday 2nd May 2023 by Karen Ryder

Our Rating

When you hear that a story written by Michael Rosen has been adapted for the stage by Roy Williams then you sit up, pay attention, and grab your tickets fast!  Rosen is our much loved children’s author of over 200 books, former children’s laureate, and all round superstar that has families everywhere going on a bear hunt.  Williams, arguably one of the country’s leading dramatist’s is not only an OBE but a BAFTA winning writer whose work dominates every medium possible.  So yeah, when you hear that they have collaborated to create a new and modern musical that not only includes beat boxing for the cool factor, but explores the themes of child poverty from the Charles Dicken’s classic Oliver Twist, and cleverly frames them in today’s world, then it is sensible to ensure you have a seat to park your bum on when the show comes to town. 

Produced by Children’s Theatre Partnership, it soon became clear that all involved have young people at the heart of their show.  It is a production that speaks to our younger theatre goers in a way that they can not only understand, but that they will listen to, for it speaks to them, not at them.  Engaging them from the off (and equally engaging us adults too), the excitement is stirred up by informing us all music tonight is live, and will include no instruments, no soundtracks, nothing but voice.  It immediately set a tone of anticipation, teasing us that something unique and special is about to happen and you could feel the electricity in the air.

So, what is Unexpected Twist about, and where does Charles Dickens come into it?  Well, Rosen has used his genius to hold a mirror up to child poverty in today’s world and the spiralling effects that it can have on young people.  As a group of school children study Oliver Twist at school, we start to learn more about one student in particular named Shona, who has lost her mother in recent years and whose father is struggling financially.  Things are hard for Shona, and so when she is offered a free mobile phone by someone, unaware of the actual price attached to it, she thinks her luck is changing and so takes it.  But if something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and Shona soon discovers that in return for the ‘free’ phone, she must start working for those who gave it her.  Oliver had to pick a pocket or two to pay his way, Shona has to work as a runner, collecting and dropping off things that no child should be involved in.  At first, she thinks life is great as the money comes pouring in but things never stay sweet for long and the demands get higher and more risky.  This is the world we live in, where the vulnerable are exploited and before they know it, just like Shona, they are in way over their heads.  Luckily, Shona has some good people in her corner who clue her up as to what is going on and help free her from the trappings of gang life before it is too late.     

As the students continue to read Oliver Twist in class with their teacher Miss Cavani, interesting discussions take place about the novel which I hope are welcomed in actual classrooms, but the students also start to draw comparisons between themselves and the characters in the story.  We interestingly see the actors double up as these characters which solidifies the message that the methods of gang trappings may be different, but the existence of it is not, which is a shocking realisation.  It is hopefully a subtle and overt way to reach out to any youngster watching the show who may find themselves in a similar situation and recognise the dangerous path it exposes them to. 

Set this against a well thought out design by Frankie Bradshaw, where a classroom full of lockers convincingly nestles amongst the dark and miserable streets of Victorian London, and the effect is complete.  The Dickensian characters emerge ghost like, from the hidden nooks and crannies whilst the school children read about them, generating further eerie links between past and present.  One reveal even had the Dickens character attached to some unseen device that had them leaning almost parallel with the stage in another worldly manner.  The different levels were used to the casts advantage, allowing them to bound on and off with effortless slickness and impressive choreography.  Complimented by Rory Beaton’s light design, which not only cast intriguing shadows in the dark and dismal Victorian world but made room for contrast in our modern one with club like vibes in upbeat numbers.  Spotlights created tension and an ever present smog filled the stage, really bringing this underworld to life.

Prior to the show, I’d been hearing lots of whispers via the theatrical grapevine regarding the superstar power of Drew Hylton (Meet Me In St. Louis, Annie) as Shona.  I can concur that everything I heard is indeed true and she is outstanding.  Performance, check!  Voice, check!  Believability, check!  Credibility, check!  From powerful, to sass, to fierce, to vulnerable, with touches of strength, humour and tenderness.  As her voice rang out with her very first note, my friend and I intuitively looked at each other and mouthed “wow.”  The partnership with Thomas Vernal (The Book Of Mormon, One Love – The Bob Marley Musical) as dad in particular encapsulates the tornado of complicated emotions teenagers face.  The show navigates this with a respectful honesty, moving touchingly between that love – loathe dynamic and wrapping it up with the glorious duet “No More Chips” which strips away all the teenage bravado and parental white lies, and allows us to see what is truly going on for both of them underneath the armour they present to each other.  It is a reminder that what we so often mistake as surliness from teenagers, is actually just the workings out of complex and pure feelings.  Vernal has an undeniably beautiful voice and portrays the dad very well.  It is a delicate balancing act of a character to show him as lost rather than loathsome, and he achieves this impeccably. 

Rosie Hilal (Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Brideshead Revisited) as Miss Cavani is really natural and gives an honest performance.  She underplays the part in a positive way so that the students in the show weren’t patronised and she is seen as a figure to be trusted, a vital choice when many real life students were making up tonights audience.  Polly Lister (One Man Two Govners, Abigail’s Party) as nan was strong, funny, and vulnerable all at the same time, and brilliantly almost unrecognisable when she came back out as Lorraine.  This was fantastic character acting and provided some really moving moments.

Nadine Rose Johnson as Rosie, Kate Donnachie as Desree, and Liyah Summers as Rasheda not only play Shona’s class mates with an unruly realism that can be found in many a senior school across the country, but equally double up as various Dickensian roles throughout.  In short, they never stop working and pull the show together with a slick yet bountiful energy that engages the audience and encourages you to invest.  Their combined skills are off the scale, with stunning voices, impressive moves, and a particularly mind boggling energy from Donnachie at the end of the show!  Alexander Lobo Moreno as Tino/Artful Dodger gives a powerfully emotive performance.  He is cool, full of showmanship and busts some incredible moves.  He is charming with a dangerous edge and performs entirely from the heart.  His solo “This Is Who I Am” blew me away and was so full of passion I could feel myself screaming internally at how unfair life can be.  He really got me.  Alex Hardie notches up the cool factor tenfold with his role as Gazz, but more so with his flawless beatboxing.  He seamlessly continued dropping beats and making music throughout, even when his character was being pummelled.  He was hilarious when explaining the plot of Oliver Twist to Shona at the start of the show and interpreted the ‘roadman’ style character to perfection, right down to his clipped words, his swagger, and his inserts of ‘yeah’ in every breathable gap!  James Meteyard as Pops / Bill Sykes also kept the beat going with his incredible beat boxing and made his presence felt with a gritty realism.  He was confident, scary, and intimidating – everything that Bill Sykes is meant to be, but allowed us just a brief moment of trying to understand how he ended up where he was before his defence went back up.  A brilliant performance.

This is a youthful cast, which it really had to be for its message to be heard by younger audience members.  With an unexpected twist on costumes (see what I did there), there really are surprises around every corner with this production and the direction by James Dacre will certainly keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat – no mean feat for a story that we kind of already know thanks to Oliver.  Yaya Bey and Conrad Murray have turned musicals upside down and twisted them inside out with their fascinating and flippin’ brilliant modern day score.  A blend of soul, R&B, hip hop, rap, and beat boxing all intertwine to create a new flavour that feels cool, current, and communicates with its audience perfectly.  As I stated earlier, no instruments are used at all in this show other than the voice, and I am reiterating this point because it will blow your mind!  These original songs are catchy, funny, heartfelt, and brilliant.  From the opening number of “School School School,” it becomes clear that this is a musical like no other, and as we move to the soulful and beautiful “I remember The Beach,” to the catchy and bouncing finale of “Unexpected Twist,” you will remain in awe at what is being achieved, live and (yes I’m saying it again) with no instruments.  What makes this even more impressive is that it means the singers start singing each and every time with no chords, nothing to pitch them, yet they are never off key, always in harmony, and always flawless.

Unexpected Twist is creative, modern, youthful theatre that speaks directly to its intended audience.  Yet, it has been written and produced so well that it is not exclusive of us older audience members either.  Far from it.  It educates us on how things truly are for teenagers in this topsy turvy world and the truths they face and how they try to navigate them.  It is enlightening, engaging, and exciting in equal measures.  An experience to be shared by all from fledgling to fossil.  Be entertained by the brilliant story, be beguiled by the enticing characters and be bamboozled by the trailblazing beat boxing.  And just as you think the surprise treats are over, right at the end of the show, you’ll find just one more unexpected twist lying in wait for you.  It’s one that will leave you asking, “Please Sir, can I have some more.”




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