This festive season, Trafalgar Studios is offering up an alternative look at the work of Charles Dickens, in the form of 'Dickens with a Difference.' The double-bill incorporates the London premieres of Miss Havisham's Expectations and Sikes & Nancy. The latter is based on the legendary readings that Charles Dickens used to personally give, tackling the grislier material from Oliver Twist. With 19th Century audiences, these readings would shock spectators into silence; with many screaming and fainting in the aisles.
The one-man show, Sikes & Nancy, is performed at the Trafalgar Studios by the highly skilled, James Swanton. This is Swanton's third one-man production, which is obvious with his ease at holding an audience completely on his own. On entering the theatre you arrive at a stark stage, with a menacing figure sitting in its center, all dressed in black. The mood is dark. As Swanton begins, we instantly see his ability to morph into the numerous Dickens characters, taking on their assorted tones and movements. Every inch of his tall stature is used to portray each person, from revolting Fagin right through to the helpless Nancy. His face appears to become processed by each of the characters, delivering their haunting accounts in a way that transports you back to the slums of Victorian London. The over-the-top performance made the personalities impact me in an almost nightmarish fashion.
For fans of the Oliver Twist book or films, the story covers some of the more bloody scenes, involving the brutal murder of Nancy and Sikes own ultimate demise. The six weathered chairs, that stand as the set, are used well to create tension in scenes and nothing more is needed. It's a great example of how a box theatre space doesn't need to be cluttered by props, as the piece manages to fill the space with everything you need. Even without seeing Nancy's body laying on the floor, you're in the room with Sikes and feeling his guilt. The Trafalgar Studio lends itself to this production beautifully, with the audience being drawn into every scene. I found it was a great opportunity for the story to concentrate on a few key moments, in comparison to the whole story of Oliver Twist, which can be overwhelming and sometimes brushing over the intricate work of Charles Dickens.
The story is fast paced and highly engaging, with James Swanton delivering a spectacular performance. It's a dark and thrilling show, which Swanton bravely takes to the next level with his sheer commitment to each of the characters. Sikes & Nancy is a gripping play that shines a light on how audiences would have originally enjoyed Dickens' work. I wouldn't describe it as a family show, due to it's rather vivid nature, but would certainly recommend it as a very effecting piece of theatre. I might not have quite fainted in the aisles, but I was captivated throughout, and blown away by Swanton's unwavering performance.
Sikes & Nancy runs until Saturday 3rd January 2015, Trafalgar Studios (Studio 2).