Sikes and Nancy
Corpus Playroom, 4pm until Fri 22nd June
James Swanton should go far. Anyone privileged enough to have been in the Corpus Playroom this afternoon can’t help but think that. With assurance and skill, he owned the stage, slipping in and out of different roles without awkwardness or a drop in energy. He’s probably sick of the phrase “rubber face” but his collection of grimaces and twitches is truly admirable, each figure – even when only granted a line or two at a time – had their own individual look and feel; Swanton’s strong control of his vocal tone gave each one a different timbre and pitch. Leaping across chairs, teetering high and low on the stage, speaking now madly, now calmly, he was a force of nature pulling us out of our May Week minds and into Dickens’ twisted, terrifying vision. For the audience, we were among a host of friends, from the lugubrious Sikes to the sinister yet ridiculous Fagin. To viewers familiar with the book – or indeed, the Lionel Bart musical – there was a pleasant sense of the uncanny: we knew these characters, but Swanton brought out different sides of them; Nancy shaded with a hopelessness that was new to me, Fagin with a pathos.
The lighting design was spot on, leaving Swanton mainly in the dark but bringing crucial moments out clear and bright. A central spotlight was particularly effective in the murder sequence – we could not see a body, but the combination of the lighting, a judiciously utilised prop coat and Swanton’s amazing capacity to remove his audience’s sense of disbelief conjured it there in front of us. And perhaps this was his greatest triumph – more than his expression, physical presence or even words, it is his passion and energy which sweeps the audience along with him. His focus and intensity keeps us following his every word, and the feeling that he sees all these characters around him leads us to see them too. It was one of the most engaging and captivating hours of theatre I have experienced in Cambridge.
I say hours – the whole thing came in under fifty minutes. Not that every single one of them wasn’t fantastic, but if I have a complaint about this show it was its brevity – the climactic murder scene seemed to come a little too soon; Sikes’ powerful emotional response perhaps cut off too soon. But this is no more than a quibble; perhaps I was too enthralled by Swanton’s previous efforts on the Hunchback, and I truly would highly recommend this last show. When Swanton graduates at the end of this term, Cambridge will experience an enormous loss.