views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Sikes and Nancy
Trafalgar Studios
12th December 2014


James Swanton in Sikes and Nancy

Photography © Edward Quekett

Running alongside Miss Havisham's Expectations, Sikes & Nancy is another one-person show based on Dickens' writing, but that's where the similarities end. James Swanton has taken the characters from Oliver Twist and created a cut down hour-long tale, which ignores fancy props and set design, instead focuses on pure storytelling. Frankly, sometimes one man with a good story is all you want from a black box theatre and that's what Sikes & Nancy provides.

Having previously seen Swanton in Dippermouth's Scrooge & Marley, we knew he could do different voices and mannerisms with ease, but this was a powerful reminder of his phenomenal abilities. When not narrating, his go-to voices are in line with Gollum and The Joker, and his delivery is thoroughly intense and unsettling. Six chairs are moved around the stage becoming walls, streets, rooms - whatever he needs. There's very little around him to hide behind; the production just wouldn't work with a less talented actor. Swanton has not just adapted the show - he is the show.

If we had to complain about something - and we fear this is somewhat petty - sometimes Swanton's voices are too grotesque, too monstrous, you find yourself gripped by the delivery and not the words themselves. This can make it difficult to keep up, and keep up you must given the short running time and fast pace. Swanton is dressed in black, and his clothes never give an indication as to who he's currently playing, so you need to really concentrate so as to not lose your place. Although Oliver Twist is the story of an orphan born into poverty and misery and neglected by pretty much every single adult he comes across, people tend to think of it as fairly PG due to the stage musical adaptation and films. "Please sir, can I have some more?" Isn't that cute? Well, go back to the original novel, and it's a pretty bleak affair, with a horrendously abusive relationship between Sikes and Nancy - ignoring the prostitution, child slavery, thievery and anti-semitism. Here, Nancy's final scenes are visceral and haunting, and Swanton transcends the limitation of mere "funny voices" to bring a poignant fragility to one of literature's most wronged female characters. As for Sikes' own end, well, Swanton makes this suitably shocking as well.

James Swanton in Sikes and Nancy

Photography © Richard Davenport

And here's as good a time as any for a word of warning. Whilst the stage seating for Trafalgar Studios' Richard III earlier this year didn't deliver on its caveats of drenching the audience with blood, seats A11 and A12 in Studio 2 are right in the danger zone for this production. You'll get a fantastic view, but you may also get spat on and/or splattered. When picking seats, you do need to consider, how immersive do you really like your theatre?

Swanton as a performer is top notch, but there are times where perhaps he focuses too much on his wonderful physicality, and should instead spare more thought for the bigger picture. It can be difficult to do this without a separate director, and although there's no faulting Swanton's delivery as such, not all the vocal choices he makes are necessarily the right ones. Some of the characters do blend into each other - not because Swanton slips, honestly the merely suggestion of that is sacrilege - but because he chooses to play them in too close a way. Like I said, bigger picture.

Sikes & Nancy is clearly a labour of love for the performer, and apart from a spot of help with the lighting by Matt Leventhall, who particularly adds value in Sikes' farewell, this show really is Swanton's baby alone. It's gritty, captivating and put together with a huge amount of raw talent.

Sikes and Nancy opened on 16th December 2014 and runs until 3rd January 2015 at Trafalgar Studios, alongside Miss Havisham's Expectations as part of Dickens with a Difference.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)

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