Beneath the layers of sentimentalism, Oliver Twist is a story of child abuse. This gets lost in the famous musical adaptation where Harry Secombe is a cuddly Mr Bumble and Ron Moody a witty, affectionate Fagin.
The new adaptation I caught in Derby last Friday was clear about the violence and brutality. Oliver was caught in the government-ordered cruelty of the workhouse and escaped to the similar cruelties of Fagin and Bill Sikes. Starvation, violence, prison and execution were more probable for children than the luck of meeting a generous philanthropist. And Nancy wasn't a cheerful tart with a heart but a desperate young woman in the clutches of her pimp, who had been one of Fagin's child-thieves at the age of six and moved into prostitution as the next step.
Adaptations of Dickens have to decide which plots to include and which to omit. For those who know the original novel, this included Monks and omitted Rose Maylie. If you don't know who they are, you can easily find out. People in the audience who had never read the novel gasped at some of the twists in the plot so I'm not planning to give it away.
Oliver Twist is still relevant. A programme note mentioned the way some of today's politicians blame the poor for everything that goes wrong in their life. It made me realise that today Oliver would be wearing a hoodie while the Artful Dodger would be glorying in a string of ASBOs.
But while it would be easy to update the plot, this version kept the story in its original setting. The first episodes were published in the months before Victoria came to the throne and it belongs to the violent class antagonisms of that time. In particular, the book attacks the inhumanity of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, driven in part by the desire to punish "bastardy" - that's why Oliver is illegitimate. This version echoed this theme by emphasising the role of Oliver's young mother, driven to run away from a sense of shame and guilt.
There are songs too. Lionel Bart's songs have a lot going for them. They express a working-class determination to survive and celebrate - but they're a long way from Dickens. The songs in this play expressed radical criticism of injustice and inequality. I don't think Dickens would ever have sung such songs but the reminder of the anger that fuelled them said something about the audience of Dickens' novels. Anyone who finds Dickens' story too violent, extreme and sentimental should try G.W. M. Reynolds' monumental Mysteries of London, which became a much larger seller just ten years later. But that's another story - or, to be accurate, a compendium of interweaving stories - and far longer and more melodramatic than anything Dickens wrote.
Note: I wanted to find links to the songs from the play, since I think they may come from the period and they would have shown the contrast with Lionel Bart. But I couldn't find them. So I'm linking to Chumbawamba singing two songs which are probably a year or two later than Oliver Twist: The Chartist Anthem and Poverty Knock (which is from the north of England, not London). They're the nearest I can get.