Inclusion is embedded in the work of Ramps on the Moon, the theatre consortium that programmes work that centres D/deaf and disabled artists and audiences. It’s at the heart of its creative process. It informs every aspect of the production.
While previous Ramps on the Moon productions have used existing texts – Gogol’s The Government Inspector, a sonic reclamation of The Who’s rock opera Tommy – this time around, Bryony Lavery has been commissioned to write a fresh adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about poverty and an uncaring world: Oliver Twist.
Lavery’s adaption is explicitly about what it is to be marginalised. In her version, Oliver (Brooklyn Melvin) – the young orphan who falls in with a gang of street thieves – is Deaf, as are gang-mistress Fagin (Caroline Parker) and fellow pickpocket the Artful Dodger (Nadeem Islam). Growing up in the workhouse, Oliver has never been taught to sign or speak; he has been denied a voice. Fagin and her gang of the blind, Deaf and disabled offer Oliver a community of sorts, a family who understand him, albeit one that revolves around nicking people’s purses. They are all less visible in the eyes of society.
Communication is a central theme in Amy Leach’s production, both in terms of the relationships between the characters and the different methods of storytelling she deploys. Steps have been taken to make sure the text is comprehensible to everyone. Lavery has pared down Dickens’ characterful, colourful and at times prolix prose to its essentials. She has retained the core of the story and termed it into something that often resembles verse. The Visual elements are given as much weight as the words.
Hayley Grindle’s set consists of a scaffold on top of which sits a large screen on to which surtitles are projected. Sometimes they fill the screen, sometimes they appear at its edges, emphasising the way in which the lines are delivered. The production also uses British Sign Language and there is integrated audio description for visually impaired audience members. Many of the aesthetic choices – high contrast, black on white – are also designed with visually impaired audience members in mind.
The suppression of signing is something the production also explores. In Lavery’s adaptation, Mr Brownlow – the wealthy man who turns out to be Oliver’s grandfather – has attended of the Milan Conference, a gathering of educators in 1880 in which it was decided that speech was superior to signing in the education of Deaf people. As a result, the use of sign language was banned in schools. It was seen as a lesser method of communication, less civilised. To not be able to speak was almost regarded as a moral failing. This denial of the legitimacy of sign led to a cultural de-voicing.
Brownlow insists that his daughter Rose, (Katie Erich, making a striking professional stage debut) who is also hard of hearing, speaks rather than “flapping her hands around”. He tries to teach Oliver to speak by tying his arms behind his back. Characters frequently raise their voices or turn their heads away making lip reading impossible when trying to speak to Oliver or Rose. In contrast, Fagin’s gang understand one another.
As with other Ramps on the Moon productions, this is a real ensemble piece. Also making her debut as Oliver, Melvin’s performance shifts from one of fear and incomprehension to the pure joy that comes from being understood, valued and wanted. Stephen Collins impresses as the volatile Bill Sikes, exuding menace without bellowing, shadowed by a very effective puppet of his loyal dog Bullseye. Parker is a spiky, pink-haired Fagin. Islam an entertaining if underused Dodger. Erich is warm and compassionate as Rose and the scenes with both Oliver and Jack Lord’s Brownlow are the production’s most moving. Steph Lacey, as Mrs Thingummy, is a lively comic presence zipping around the stage in her steampunk wheelchair.
Nancy’s death scene is very carefully handled by Leach. It’s a superb example of how to direct a scene involving brutal violence against a woman without simply recreating it. Instead of making us witness Sikes attack her, Leach has Clare-Louise English’s Nancy detach herself from him and step away, observing her own end from a distance.
Despite Lavery’s distilling of the novel into this fragmented, poetic text, there’s still a lot of plot to get through, a lot of coincidences and, appropriately enough, twists, because this is Dickens. This can make the production feel choppy. There are also some lulls in pacing and, at times, it is blunt in its methods, heavily underlining its message, but then again sometimes subtlety doesn’t cut it. Disabled people have seen their benefits cut, their independence eroded and their lives imperilled by austerity policies that view them as drains on the system. Mr Bumble’s warning that you shouldn’t overfeed the poor, lest you risk giving them spirit, is not dissimilar from contemporary dehumanising rhetoric surrounding poverty, benefits and food banks.
The production drives home the fact that a lot of things Dickens describes are still with us, and have perhaps even more dismayingly, seen a resurgence, and it does this while populating the stage with D/deaf and disabled actors, insisting on visibility. Disabled people are still woefully under-represented in the arts, but Amy Leach’s production offers an entertaining, embracive, necessary corrective.