Masterpiece Theater's version of "Oliver Twist" would have Charles Dickens himself shouting "Bravo!" 

An Unexpected Twist

If, as some literary critics say, Charles Dickens painted himself into a corner when plotting "Oliver Twist," then British dramatist Alan Bleasdale has found a mouse-hole in the corner, reached through it, and brilliantly pulled out the story inside.

The result is that "Oliver Twist" makes more sense than ever before as a potboiler of a story, a melodramatic rags-to-riches tale spiced up with abject poverty, petty thievery, treacherous adversaries and the obligatory prostitute with a heart of gold.

Because Dickens originally wrote the story in monthly installments published between 1837 and 1839 — and clearly made it up as he went along — the narrative moves along in an uneven fashion, with a furious amount of plotting late in the story, in order to make it all work out. Oliver's birth is only explored near the tale's conclusion, and then only in a sketchy fashion. But Bleasdale found a way out of the morass: He moved the vague hints about Oliver's birth to the beginning of the narrative — where they belong — and created an artful back-story to "Oliver Twist" that begins when Oliver is as yet unborn.

What Bleasdale has done is so clearly the right way to tell the story that it's difficult to imagine that Dickens himself would not say "bravo!"

But Bleasdale's clever straightening out of the story is only a part of why the Masterpiece Theatre production of "Oliver Twist" is perfect for opening the series' 30th season on the air.

Without a winsome young actor to play the part of the plucky central character, "Oliver Twist" hasn't a chance at success. But young Sam Smith, who plays Oliver in Bleasdale's production, is as appealing and engaging as Mark Lester was in the 1968 movie musical version.

But don't expect the treacly characterization and setting of Lionel Bart's musical. Bleasdale's creation of London and the British countryside is as grittily Dickensian as fans of the novel could wish, and the sordid characters that make Oliver's early life miserable are despicably repugnant in this production.

In addition to young Sam Smith, those who stand out in the enormous cast of this sprawling and richly detailed effort are Michael Kitchen as Oliver's benevolent patron, Mr. Brownlow, and Lindsay Duncan, who delivers a tour-de-force performance as diva-bitch Elizabeth Leeford. Robert Lindsay as Fagin and Andy Serkis as Bill Sikes also add a dark depth to this story of an orphan who finally discovers his noble origins, a saga that Queen Victoria called "excessively interesting."

Clear your Sunday evenings for three weeks beginning Oct. 8. Masterpiece Theatre's "Oliver Twist" will hold you inevitably and delightfully in its thrall.


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