Sunday, December 14, 2014

'Sikes and Nancy' at Trafalgar Studios, 12th December 2014

Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, have been committed within wide London’s bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.” - Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Singlehandedly conjuring up Dickens' London with just six chairs, a black overcoat and a bag of blood is a bold ambition. But then James Swanton is a bold performer. This one man show, having toured the UK for the last two years, has landed for a short run in the basement of Trafalgar Studios. Outside the biting winter wind chills the bones of scurrying shoppers; the Norwegian Christmas tree apparently having brought the Norse chill down with it. Even old Nelson seems to be drawing his coat a little tighter tonight.

This seasonal freeze makes the perfect background to Sikes and Nancy, a retelling of Dicken's most monstrously written murder; a spiral of betrayal, passion, lust, insanity and ladles of sticky, sour blood. The four principals: thuggish Bill Sikes, desperate Nancy, twisted Fagin and kindly Brownlow, all find themselves embodied in the tornado of jagged limbs, guttural howls and facial metamorphoses that is James Swanton.

Swanton is waiting for us as we enter the space, perched atop a chairs like a tattily dressed raven. He mutters incoherently, shaking as if suffering through some dark nightmare. From minute one he's got gravitas galore, the audience hushed in submission as we take our seats. As the lights go down he uncurls, spiderish limbs unfolding from within his long, pitch-black coat.

Dickens' prose, tangled and wordy like ivy consuming a wrought-iron gate, finds life as much in Swanton's body langyage as in his diction. In silhouette his face resembles nothing more than Mr. Punch; a half moon punctuated by a hooked nose and jutting chin. His arms and legs move at jagged acute angles, one minute embodying the solidly muscular sociopathy of Sikes, the next the wizened, crooked Fagin and finally the cowed, beaten Nancy. Swanton shuffles these persona like a cardshark with a fresh deck, effortlessly swooping about the stage in leering rage to huddled terror without missing a beat.

As the show goes on you're sucked further and further in, Swanton becoming increasingly magnetic. There's a subtle ascending rhythm to his diction as we progress through the tale. Early scenes are stuffed with menace, but it's slow burning and precise. Swanton's acrobatic voice is being put through its paces, switching from guttural gasps, saliva-drenched slobbering and squeaky awkwardness. As the cogs of the plot turn and the furious Sikes draws ever closer to Nancy the pace picks up, the delivery accelerating to a dizzying pace.

The peak is the murder itself, a disturbingly animalistic frenzy that leaves Swanton blood-smeared and manic. In the most chilling moment in a performance full of chilling moments, Sikes describes the burning of the murder weapon: “there was hair upon the end, which blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up the chimney. Even that frightened him, sturdy as he was.” These heights of physical and vocal performance can be best summarised by the genuinely disturbing gleam you see in Swanton's eye, as if he's become unhinged, lost in the maze of Oliver Twist.

After the murder comes swift justice as Sikes is pursued through the city. Eventually, standing atop a rooftop he fashions a noose. It's famously ambiguous whether Sikes planned to use the rope to escape or commit guilt-driven suicide. This is preserved here, though it's clear something has irreversibly broken inside Sikes' brain. He gibbers and sweats, Nancy's blood oozing across his arms and shirt and spittle r.aining on his lips. I watch in amusement as those sat directly in front of Swanton receive a spackling of spit from his drooling mouth. Then he places the noose around himself and leaps from the parapet. *CRACK!*

Sikes and Nancy is a hell of an intensive hour of a theatre. It looks physically and emotionally exhausting for Swanton, who leaves the stage gently panting, bowing with a drained expression on his face. What reserves of superhuman strength he's drawing upon to maintain this level of performative focus after two years of doing this night after night?

Credit must also go to the astonishingly effective lighting by Matt Leventhall. The show wouldn't be half as effective without these brightly coloured gels highlighting every one of Swanton's twisted expressions and long swishes of his coat. It's this that creates the heightened sense of reality that's needed to make this work, dragging us kicking and screaming through Dickens' darkest literary moment.

That said, if you're after a heart-warming, post-shopping Christmas show this probably isn't the place to be. There's precious little festive about this descent into madness, and the two children in the audience left looking mildly shell-shocked. But if you want to watch a masterclass in one man theatre there's no finer place to be in London on these bonechilling winter nights.

Sikes and Nancy is at Trafalgar Studios until January 3rd.  Tickets £15 available here.

Tags: , , ,

0 Responses to “'Sikes and Nancy' at Trafalgar Studios, 12th December 2014”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights