Thursday, February 7, 2019

Oliver Twist for the Toy Theatre

While in London last month, I went to Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop in Covent Garden. That's where I picked up reproduction prints for a Victorian toy theatre version of Oliver Twist.

I haven't built the theatre yet, though I already have a toy theatre of Great Expectations. As today is the birthday of Charles Dickens, I thought I'd share some images of the prints I bought. They're reproduced from actual designs published by John Redington.

The first step in the process is to build the proscenium. Below is what Redington's proscenium looked like. Notice that spectators can be seen in boxes on either side of the stage. You can also build up the proscenium with pieces meant to give it extra height, if you want.

Pollock's will also sell you a reproduction of the script that Victorian children would use when enacting productions of Oliver Twist. In their version, the play opens at the "Three Cripples," which is the name of an infamous tavern in Dickens's novel. Here's what it looked like in the imagination of a Victorian toymaker:

The second scene is in a workhouse, which is where Dickens begins his novel. The reason it doesn't look as bleak as you might expect is because this is where Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble meet to discuss where to apprentice Oliver. Strangely enough, the script doesn't contain the story's most famous line:  "Please, sir, I want some more." Young thespians could have added it in, of course.

As in the novel, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. Noah teases him, telling Oliver his "mother was a right down bad 'un." The two fight, and there is even a special double character figure of the two of them fighting. When Mr. Bumble sees this, he resolves to lock the boy up and inform the workhouse board. Oliver decides he must run away at once, and the curtain falls on Act I.

The second act opens with a scene of the road to London. The gothic ruins in this scene look like they come from another play. This is the road to where? Well, one of the extra pieces that comes with the set is a milestone showing it is twelve miles to London, so that could certainly cue the audience into where the scene is. It's along this road that Oliver meets the Artful Dodger, who invites him back to Fagin's house, which is the next scene.

Below is the interior of Fagin's house. In the background are stolen handkerchiefs, one of which resembles a Union Jack for some reason. The stage directions call for "Thieves discovered smoking" and Dodger enters with Oliver. The young orphan marvels at all of the handkerchiefs, and Fagin sends him out with Dodger and Charley, telling him, "do whatever they tell you." Oliver agrees, and the boys go to our next scene, which is a street in Clerkenwell.

The street scene below could no doubt be used in a variety of plays, but the script suggests it be the setting for a surprisingly expository scene. We don't actually see Dodger and Charley robbing Mr. Brownlow and Oliver being caught by mistake. Instead Dodger simply narrates: "Oliver was with us, and just as we nabbed the wipe, he turned round; we cut--Oliver run, and they run arter him, thinking he was a thief." The boy is then taken to Mr. Brownlow's house.

Maybe we weren't expecting the pink walls, but I suppose this looks like a typical middle-class Victorian home. Prominently displayed is a portrait that resembles Oliver so much that Mrs. Bedwin remarks upon it. Mr. Brownlow notices the resemblance, too, and tells Oliver, "Your likeness to one whom I once dearly loved--will make me regard you with interest and affection." Mr. Brownlow's friend is skeptical, but Oliver is sent back outside to pay a bill to the bookseller.

Scene 8 returns to the street, where Nancy and Bill Sykes kidnap Oliver and take him back to Fagin's house. That means the next two scenes in a row repeat previous backdrops. We then return to a chamber in Mr. Brownlow's house. Wait a minute, this is Mr. Brownlow's house? Who knew Mr. Brownlow was into interior decorating with an orientalist aesthetic. According to George Speaight's history of the toy theatre, this scene was actually pirated from a design for a rival publisher's toy theatre version of Forty Thieves.

We next return to Fagin's house, where the thieves (but not forty of them) plan to use Oliver to break into Mrs. Maylie's House. No, I'm not sure what's up with those potted plants, but it is a lovely moon. Oliver is captured, of course, and we get to see Sykes with a pistol. The script says Sykes is supposed to re-enter "with pistols" but only one pistol is on the character sheet. As Oliver is wounded, the curtain falls on Act II.

Act III opens in a hall in the house of Mrs. Maylie. The interior of the house is a bit more convincing to me than the exterior, but the scene is brief, and we are quickly transported to London Bridge. Nancy meets with Mr. Brownlow while Noah spies on them. Another street scene follows, where Noah tells Sykes. I'm skipping over these images to get to the really frightening one: Sykes's garret where he murders Nancy.

Another scene at Mr. Brownlow's follows, but the climax of the play is on Jacob's Island. The stage directions state: "The white part of the window to be cut out, and the Room in Set Piece to be placed at the back of the opening." We get to see inside the building, and then have the scene outside on the roof as Sykes is hunted to his death.

And that's the play! Maybe next year on Dickens's birthday I can actually perform it with a real toy theatre!