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Sikes & Nancy review

There’s something about the Dickensian world that appeals at Christmastime, stretching beyond the obvious A Christmas Carol. Trafalgar Studios is presenting Dickens With A Difference – two separate one-actor shows which offer unique twists on two favourite novels.

James Swanton has adapted a passage from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and presents his one-man show, Sikes & Nancy, which details the culmination of one of the most famous destructive and abusive relationships in English literature.

Swanton’s appearance, ghoulish with black make-up around the eyes, dressed entirely in black with a long frock coat, reveals where his interest lies in Dickens’ world. He is drawn to the dark and the macabre, and as he brings to life all of the characters found in the troubling sections of Oliver Twist, he clearly relishes the Dickensian grotesques.

Sikes & Nancy
James Swanton in Sikes & Nancy. Credit: Edward Quekett.

Sikes & Nancy showcases an extraordinary physical performance. Swanton’s facial and bodily contortions as he embodies particular characters, and his array of voices, whilst varying pace from the unsettlingly sedate to the manic, create dazzling yet disturbing effects. His characterisation of Fagin is like a cross between Wilfred Brambell and Gollum, all crooked, pointing fingers, scratchy voice and bent back. One can’t help but imagine that Swanton’s Fagin is pretty close to what Dickens (who, clearly a frustrated actor, performed readings of his works) imagined.

Other characters are similarly neatly caricatured, including the brutish Bill Sikes and the innocent Nancy. There are some excellent standout moments in this production, including a heated exchange between Fagin and Sikes, the latter throttling the former. The rapid changes of character is breathtakingly well done. Effective lighting (Matt Leventhall) assists in maintaining a spooky atmosphere, enabling Swanton to render Max Shreck-like shadows on the walls.

We were swept into the world of Sikes & Nancy for the first half of the show, when Swanton, as the narrator, remained outside the world of the characters as an objective voice. However, Swanton ratchets up the mania as the story heads down its dark and violent path, and as soon as the narrator’s voice became as crazed as the characters whose lives he describes, we found it became too much, and too grotesque, eventually nullifying the horror, and leaving us little through way to follow the story to its conclusion.

Nevertheless, there are flashes of pure brilliance in Sikes & Nancy. James Swanton’s overtly otherworldly performance style won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’ll rarely see this approach better-rendered with this level of commitment.

Sikes & Nancy runs alongside Miss Havisham’s Expectations until the New Year.

Dickens With A Difference

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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