This February, Oliver Twist is revived in a profound new version by Ramps on the Moon and Leeds Playhouse.
We spoke to designer Hayley Grindle about innovating this much-loved classic as a new piece of accessible theatre — a research process that has revealed some striking parallels between Victorian life and ongoing problems today.
Hello Hayley. You’ve just stepped out of a run. How’s it going?
It’s going really well and we’re just at the beginning of it. It all feels quite new because we’re attempting to caption the entire show, in a creative way, so it’s just the start of that process right now.
How did you get involved in this new version of Oliver Twist?
[Director] Amy Leach and I have worked together quite a few times. This production was coming to Leeds, and Amy asked me if I’d take it on.
Recently, just prior to this project, I was lucky enough to do a couple of shows that were really involved in thinking about access work — accessible theatre — so I think that’s how my involvement came about.
We have a really great working relationship. I think this might be our sixteenth show, so we have quite a shorthand between us.
I think, at the heart of it all, we both want to tell a very clear story. So the storytelling is at the centre of everything, and we start off by asking: How are we going to tell the story? How does the design function within that?
In terms of approaching Oliver Twist, I think we both felt that we needed to do the most we could in terms of making it truly accessible for a deaf audience. And that transpired into redeveloping onstage captioning.
So how did you integrate the captions into your design?
Normally, the captioning is a little box to the top of the stage, or off stage left/right, but we wanted to be brave and put it right in the middle of the stage action — and huge — whilst making the words look as creative as possible.
I think that’s one of the big things about the design, actually. Our design focuses on the caption, rather than the caption box coming in halfway through the text. All the wording is built into the show.
Are the captions achieved through projection?
They are, and we’ve worked with the Video Designer and another person who’s working on the captions, so the words are timed exactly to the dialogue. It’s one of the things we’re working through right now, and it’s very challenging!
We’re trying all sorts of things, such as making the words bigger where they’re more pertinent in the scene. We’ve also looked at different fonts, and we’ve experimented with how the words arrive on the screen, making it as interesting as possible, whilst still working as part of the drama.
And this all takes place in the newly-renovated Quarry space.
Yes, but it goes on tour and all the venues are very different!
Has that been a challenge, in terms of adapting your set?
Because we have spaces on the tour that are much smaller, I really wanted to create a design that contracts and expands. And also, with a show this big, I wanted to make sure the space feels intimate.
So it’s not so much a challenge with the Quarry space alone, but you have to keep in mind all of the other spaces. So I’ve designed it to work and celebrate six very different venues.
Is the setting traditional or contemporary?
When we were researching this, and when you really delve into the story of Oliver Twist, you’re aware that many things have changed. But still, in Britain and all over the world, the same problems and challenges are still around. Many are very resonant today.
So, yes, we ended up going somewhere quite contemporary near the end. What I wanted to do with the set was get a feeling of space, particularly for those who are visually impaired — so we used a strong contrast of colour with a heavy use of black and white. That ensures a silhouette can be made out as much as possible.
Also, I didn’t want it to look like your usual Oliver Twist adaptation, but also feel iconically Oliver too. So we’ve used metal fretwork structures which feel Victorian, yet it still looks relevant to today. Victorian, with a contemporary feel.
Almost industrial, perhaps?
It is quite industrial, yes. Often, your traditional Oliver Twist designs are sumptuous with lots of wood and broken down items and this version is very different to that.
Ours is very clean and very structured — lots of lines in black and white contrasts. We’ve also used some bold colour coding, such as when Fagin comes on, she’s in red, so should be quickly recognisable through the movement of colour.
What you’ll see is a version of Oliver Twist that you haven’t seen before, but it’s certainly like the story that we all know.
And what’s it been like dressing some of literature’s most iconic characters?
It’s quite amazing, really. I’ve come up with original costume designs, but then you meet the actors in person and they bring so much to the piece, you go on a journey with them. So we’ve adjusted ourselves to reflect their character — that’s really important.
It’s also been fascinating to look at the silhouettes of what those people may be like, whilst allowing the costume to make them appear different. Again, in our black and white space, we’ve been going quite strong on the outlines of dress, so we can pictorially read who they are.
Ultimately, what do you expect audiences will take away from Oliver Twist?
I’ve loved working on this show for many reasons. But the topic matter I’ve found really quite difficult — because I can see it still exists today.
To think, this is a Victorian story; the situations are still around us, such as homelessness, child poverty, and child labour in certain countries.
These issues will provide some parallel to modern-day images and perhaps raise awareness that the same problems are ongoing. But in our small choices, every day, perhaps we can change that…
Hayley Grindle, thank you.