Twist in the tale

One of our best-loved classics, Oliver Twist is not for children – even though it’s about them. Michael Rosen adapted it for them – now on stage

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Dickens’ famous tale of childhood poverty remains an important and sadly relevant read in 2023 but Oliver Twist wasn’t written for children. Former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen scratched his head about how to make the tale accessible for young readers before, in 2018, publishing Unexpected Twist.

Rosen’s book follows Shona, a new kid in school whose class is studying Oliver Twist. Much like Oliver himself, Shona keeps finding herself in trouble and when she’s given a new phone by a stranger, she begins to suspect there’s something fishy about the new kids she’s met.

Now the book, which twists together Oliver and Shona’s tales in surprising ways, has been adapted for stage by Bafta award-winning playwright Roy Williams with original new music by rising R&B star Yaya Bey and BAC Beatbox Academy’s Conrad Murray.

When did you first encounter Oliver Twist?
I think it was when I was around 11 or 12. My dad read us Great Expectations and Little Dorrit but not Oliver Twist. I think I first saw the Anthony Newley film and more than anything I was horrified by it. It’s a horror story, isn’t it, really? It’s got that slightly schmaltzy ending that Dickens always gives us, where it turns out that Oliver was highborn anyway, but it was a sort of horror story on both the page and screen until it was made sweet by the musical. That’s a shame really because it lost the power of the original story. Dickens was appalled by the social conditions of his time, which as a young reader I probably wasn’t fully aware of. That’s become clearer as I’ve got older.

What was the original inspiration for your book?
I was talking to the publishers about the idea that Dickens’ stories often have a fantastic appeal on film, but they’re sometimes quite hard for kids to lift off the page. I was thinking, is there some way of doing a kind of halfway house, like a modernisation in book form, so that kids doing Oliver Twist at school could get a handle on the Dickens story via a modern analogy?

How did a story written in the 1830s feel timely to you when you published Unexpected Twist in 2018?
It felt timely in a number of ways, including the exploitation of young people. I pulled punches to a certain extent in terms of the types of exploitations that go on – county lines and that sort of thing. Things like that that are happening all over the country are very Dickensian and very close to his original story.

Both the book and the play perfectly capture the way young people speak. Was that important to you?
Absolutely. I was trying to capture that, but I didn’t manage it nearly as well as the playwright, Roy Williams, has done. He’s certainly outflanked me there and I doff my hat to him. He’s done it fantastically well. I was going halfway there but he’s gone the whole hog. It’s brilliant and all the better for it.

You’ve mentioned your love for stories about young people for young people. Can you elaborate on that?
The great advantage of children’s and young adult literature is that it views the world through the eyes of a young person. Adult literature mostly doesn’t bother to do that. There are some famous exceptions by writers like Henry James, but mostly childhood is sort of off stage, so to speak. The thing about children’s and young adult literature is that it puts the child centre stage, so it’s interesting that Dickens himself did that but in adult literature. He stands out for that because not many other writers have done it. It’s why people keep scratching their heads, like me, and saying: “How can we make this thing more accessible to children?”

Why do you feel it’s important that there is theatre for young audiences?
The great thing about theatre is that it’s very immediate and very powerful. You feel like you’re there on a unique occasion and indeed you are. Also, through your laughter, your silence, and your gasping it feels like you’re controlling the performance as well and that’s very different from watching stuff digitally, on TV or in the cinema. When it’s done well it can be really powerful. I’ve never forgotten my theatre experiences as a youngster. Recently I was doing my Christmas show at the Old Vic and it brought up vivid memories of going there as a kid and seeing Judi Dench playing Juliet in 1960.

Will young people see themselves reflected on stage in Unexpected Twist?
Definitely. It’s that thing of even if you yourself are not that person on stage and don’t identify with them directly, you may feel there’s somebody down the road who is like them. And for adults in the audience, they’ll certainly learn from seeing how the kids engage with each other in the classroom and the way the teacher, Miss Cavani, is juggling all the characters and doing a wonderful job of negotiating her way through the curriculum as the kids spark off each other. There’s also this keyhole insight into the kinds of exploitation that’s out there waiting to lure kids in, which is something all of us who are parents fear.

What do you see as the other important themes of the story?
A major one is what happens to children who lose track of who their parents are. I don’t mean that to sound like it’s the child’s fault. I mean when they don’t know who their parents are and somehow get lost in the system. There are people who are just waiting to prey on them, and to use them for various criminal escapades. Dickens was appalled that this was going on in London and he wanted to show people that this was happening right at the heart of the British Empire.

When I came to write my book, I picked up on that, but also there are some undercurrents going on, particularly in terms of class and race, which Dickens alluded to but which I could make that little bit more explicit via the students questioning things and raising issues themselves.

Four years on, does Unexpected Twist feel even more timely to you?
Well, yes. I don’t think anything has changed since 2018. If anything, things are worse. Clearly poverty hasn’t gone away; it’s just the opposite, in fact. People are in great difficulty and young people will always find themselves at the raw end, no matter what efforts and sacrifices parents make to try and keep their families afloat. It’s still very relevant. It’s wonderful that we have food banks that provide for people, but at the same time it leaves you wondering why, after all this time and wealth, are we living in a country where food banks are necessary?”

Coupled with that are the same old Dickensian ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor, as if there are people out there who must be sponging and can’t possibly be poor on their own merit. People who are poor are made to feel guilty that they’re poor, like “Should I go to a food bank because surely there are people more deserving than me?” so they cut corners and make sacrifices.

Unexpected Twist is at the Lowry, Salford, 2-7 May and the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, 23-27 May 

Photo: Drew Hylton, Rosie Hilal, James Meteyard, Liyah Summers, Polly Lister (Manuel Harlan)

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