The most important thing you need to know about this production is that James Swanton is one of the best performers I’ve seen in Cambridge and he’s graduating. So, hopefully that counts as incentive enough to watch the show.

Onto Sikes and Nancy itself. The story is familiar (taking as its cue the original Dickens source material rather than the much more sanitised Oliver!) and Swanton’s adaptation guides us through the bitterness and inescapably tragic lives of the two  characters. While the lighting was not always perfect, the darkness of the Playroom combined with some neat sound effects made for a nicely chilling atmosphere in the dark and dingy corners of Victorian London, transporting the events very far away from a mid-afternoon during the most hedonistic week Cambridge has to offer. Using as his set a number of chairs which would be rearranged over the course of the play, Swanton provided us with a sufficient degree of claustrophobia that made the plot all the more engaging.

The most significant feature of the production is Swanton’s physicality and variety in terms of use of voice. While clearly his facial expressions are noticeable, what I found to be the most affecting element of the performance was instead his hands. The fragility with which Nancy grasps the only shot of a decent life is contrasted later on when we witness the brutality and force Sikes exhibits, and it is these little movements that do what is often so difficult in student acting and give enough space for the audience themselves to internalise the events taking place in front of them and be left feeling something real. James Swanton is a man with a pleasant and interesting sounding voice (were it not for his control and obvious interest in movement, it would be interesting to see him try his hand at adapting something for just voices) but by and large his narrative tone was not showy, the often rapid shifts in accent and tone demonstrating more than just skill.

This is linked to what was probably the weakest element of the production. While a showcase for what Swanton can do, I am not sure I am wholly convinced by the choice of subject material, although clearly working with Dickens’s work is something that he is interested in. For it to work, the narrator has to remain present which in a way diminished from the play’s power. Nevertheless, this is a small quibble for what is overall a fantastic performance and a real treat to watch. 

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